In 1969, astronauts walked on the moon, Woodstock rocked the world, and Illinois Action for Children (IAFC) got their start as the Day Care Crisis Council of Metropolitan Chicago. As more women began entering the workforce, IAFC founder Sylvia Cotton and a small group of female advocates in Chicago became concerned that young children weren’t getting the adequate care they needed.
“Children were being neglected and abused as a result of the lack of adequate facilities,” Cotton told This American Life in 2004. “I stepped on people’s toes because I was quite outspoken about what I thought was a weakness in various legislative programs.”
The agency is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year, but only began operating its own early learning facilities in the last five years. IAFC currently operates four Head Start and Early Head Start programs in south suburban Cook County. IFF’s Real Estate Solutions team conducted a site search for the nonprofit’s location in Chicago Heights.
The decision to provide direct services to families in the south suburbs was simple; there was a gap that needed to be filled.
“We were seeing a pocket of children who weren’t getting exposed to quality care because they didn’t qualify for the Child Care Assistance Program, so that got us thinking about what we could do,” says April Janney, Senior Vice President of Programs at Illinois Action for Children, noting that the change to providing direct services was not without its challenges.
Unique needs and challenges
When IAFC first began the process of transforming their early learning facilities to best meet the needs of children in the south suburbs, they were faced with some unique challenges. For starters, the very municipalities that most needed an early childhood education facility simply didn’t have a lot of suitable physical buildings.
“If you list out all the things we needed – six classrooms, a kitchen, assembly space, the raw square footage needed, parking, and a potential transportation turn-around – your pool of available options gets very small.”
“If you list out all the things we needed – six classrooms, a kitchen, assembly space, the raw square footage needed, parking, and a potential transportation turn-around – your pool of available options gets very small,” says Dave Rettker, Director of Facilities and Operations for Illinois Action for Children.
Another challenge is cost.
“The early childhood education sector is one of the most expensive nonprofit sectors in which to build a high-quality facility,” says Kate Ansorge, IFF’s Managing Director of Real Estate Solutions in Chicago. “Add to that the complex structure of an early childhood education provider’s revenue streams – combining lots of state and federal grants, as well as fees from families – and it gets really challenging for them to leverage their resources in facilities.”
Despite some of the hurdles IAFC encountered on their facilities journey, they successfully opened four facilities and are now serving over 300 children. And they aren’t stopping there.
“One of the things were thinking about next is how the childcare service system works as a whole, and what we can do to strengthen it,” Janney says.
A long-term, unique partnership
IFF and IAFC first forged a relationship in 2000 when IFF was developing the Chicago Children’s Capital Fund. The City of Chicago’s Department of Human Services contracted IFF to conduct a comprehensive needs assessment for full-day, full-year licensed child care providers in Chicago’s neighborhoods. IAFC was one of the entities that hosted IFF for the presentation of this needs assessment.
“They are one of the major voices and advocates for early care and education in Illinois,” says Joe Neri, IFF CEO, who was working on the Chicago Children’s Capital Fund at the time.
After that early engagement, IFF and IAFC collaborated on several research reports on the early childhood education industry in Illinois. In recent years, as IAFC began offering direct services to children and families, IFF has been able to collaborate with IAFC in new ways – like offering site search services and advice on finding an appropriate location.
“Illinois Action for Children is so deeply rooted in the early childhood education industry, they already knew exactly what they wanted in their facilities. The fact that they only needed very specific services from us shows how strong and focused their vision is.”
“IFF has a long history in the early childhood education sector – doing research, making loans, and engaging in a lot of real estate consulting,” Neri says. “But Illinois Action for Children is so deeply rooted in the early childhood education industry, they already knew exactly what they wanted in their facilities. The fact that they only needed very specific services from us shows how strong and focused their vision is. Together, and in different ways, IFF and IAFC have helped strengthen the early childhood education sector over many years.”
As Illinois Action for Children continues to move the needle on change in the early childhood education industry in Illinois, the state’s children and families will continue to have an advocate who fights for them.