100 Women Strong aims to solve community problems at the source. By Diane Sears
Along Pine Hills Road in Orlando, a cluster of childcare centers was experiencing a high rate of expulsions. The idea that preschool children could be getting into so much trouble disturbed a group of local women philanthropists, and they decided to do something about it.
Rather than donate money to the childcare centers, they researched what organizers called the “source problem.” The idea was to understand what was happening and then test a solution. As a giving circle, each member of 100 Women Strong contributes $1,100 annually. Unlike similar organizations, however, this group focuses on the dilemmas behind an issue and how to address it.
“This is taking it to the next level,” says co-chair Avani Desai. “We’re not focused on stocking shelves at a homeless shelter or donating food to children who are hungry. There are many others who do that. What we’re doing is going after the source problem instead of the symptoms.”
When work and family brought Desai back to Central Florida from New York in 2012, she wanted to give back to the community in a meaningful way. She found 100 Women Strong through the Central Florida Foundation, the region’s community foundation which is home to more than 400 charitable funds.
“I’m not a good fund-raiser,” says Desai, president of Schellman & Company LLC, a Tampa-based CPA firm. “This was the perfect fit, teaching women how to be strategic investors and how to get the biggest bang for your buck in philanthropy.”
Her co-chair, Leslie Hartog, is CEO of The Community Seal, which connects businesses that want to give back with nonprofits and projects that need their help.
“I have always been about systems and processes, making them work better,” says Hartog, a former industrial engineer and project manager at Walt Disney World. She put that to work in 100 Women Strong, helping set up a leadership and operational structure that allows members to showcase and develop their talents while continuing to learn — all while giving back to the community.
“We are very much about educating our members to be more strategic and more collaborative,” Hartog says. “That’s what makes us different, and that’s why we attract people who roll up their sleeves and get involved. We don’t fund-raise. The money comes from dues. So all of our energy is spent on researching, understanding the issues, and coming up with the solutions.”
“We are very much about educating our members to be more strategic and more collaborative,” – Leslie Hartog
The organization consulted with scientists, early education experts and medical professionals from the University of Central Florida, Florida State University and the Early Learning Coalition of Orange County to identify the issues behind crime, drug use, poverty and other high-risk behaviors. The research uncovered a disturbing phenomenon: The children at the childcare centers, most of them 0 to 4 years old, were
experiencing traumatic situations during the most important developmental years. This can lead to social and behavioral problems that make it difficult for them to learn when they enter kindergarten. It also can lead to potentially life-altering challenges when they become adults.
The children are from low-income families, most with one parent who is working to support them. The 100 Women Strong research found a model in a Seattle-based organization called Circle of Security International that provides an early intervention program for parents and children. The solution, Desai says, is to show children they are in a safe environment so they can bring their stress levels down and focus on learning. This successful model had not been tested in a childcare setting.
The organization selected two childcare centers for the initial pilot program, and researchers from FSU and UCF introduced the centers’ caregivers to an eight-week program to learn how to meet the attachment needs of young children using the Circle of Security model.
The Circle of Security pilot has shown promising results, with the childcare providers reporting that the methods have changed how they interact with the children. This has resulted in better behavior and relationships with the children and stronger bonds as a team among the childcare providers, Desai says.
The giving circle is expanding the pilot this year to other childcare centers to collect additional data for a research report on the findings. This research report is expected to help attract funders for further expansion of the program and perhaps set a new standard in early childcare and education.
The work is important, Desai says, because of the ripple effects on the community — both positive and negative. When children are expelled, their parents leave work to care for them and could lose their jobs, which means they can’t pay their rent and could end up homeless. On the other hand, childcare centers that have success with early education can help families forge stronger bonds, give children a boost toward growing up out of poverty, graduating on time, and finding a good job as an adult.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Not all members of 100 Women Strong have the time or interest to devote to researching the annual projects, which are decided by a vote. But the infrastructure is in place for whenever someone wants to jump in. “This appeals to different time constraints and schedules,” Hartog says.
When she first joined the group, which had been active since 2006 and has invested more than $550,000 in the community, the annual project focused on helping older students who were aging out of foster care. The group brought in advocates to assist the young adults with critical tasks such as applying for college and seeking housing.
“We are small,” Hartog says, “so we like to try pilot programs and from there find other funding partners to leverage additional dollars to expand. That way we have a bigger impact.” ◆
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