ESU6 employee Kelly Vossler of Friend is one of 26 citizen-advocates in the 2023-24 class of the Nebraska Early Childhood Policy Leadership Academy (PLA) a leadership initiative focused on building grassroots momentum for policies that advance the care, education and healthy development of young children.
Vossler learned about the PLA from the childcare taskforce in York.
“Shandra Berlin sent out an email asking for participants saying they would only take 20 people. They had over 75 applicants,” Vossler said. “Originally, I was not selected but when the group received additional funding they called me back and said I was in.”
Vossler is joined by advocates from both urban and rural areas across the state. Participants in the 2023-24 program represent child care, child welfare, business, agriculture, K-12 education, economic and community development.
Vossler taught preschool for 18 years, has been a site coordinator for Head Start in Lincoln, and in 2021, joined ESU6 in Milford as an early development services coordinator. Vossler focuses on early intervention services for families with special needs to help prepare children for kindergarten.
“The families we serve has individualized family service plans that transition to IEP’s when the child begins kindergarten,” Vossler said. “We focus on family goals using a primary coaching model because we believe that the parent is the best teacher.”
Over six months, the class will learn how to mobilize local stakeholders and drive grassroots efforts that inform early childhood policy conversations in communities and statewide.
“Each of the participants will work on a capstone project of something that is personal to them,” Vossler said. “My project will focus on creating a childcare task force in Friend. There is a shortage of childcare options in the community and the Little Friends Daycare will be closing next month.
“I will be gathering a team and working with others who are also focused on this issue for a grassroots movement towards a solution for the community.”
Now in its fifth year, more than 125 participants representing more than 35 Nebraska communities have graduated from the PLA program. Many graduates have played key roles in building the public conversation around Nebraska early childhood legislation, such as the reauthorization of the School Readiness Tax Credit in 2023.
PLA participants focus on a variety of policies that impact the lives of Nebraska children and families, and access to quality child care has been a central focus since the program was established. Early childhood care and education programs are critical to enabling workforce participation, increasing families’ financial stability and creating social, educational and economic opportunity.
Yet child care has long operated under economic and regulatory constraints that make it unsustainable for child care businesses, professionals and working families, and programs are declining across the state. Of the 83 Nebraska counties that had licensed child care providers in 2020, 58 percent experienced a decrease in programs.
A strong and viable early childhood infrastructure is essential, said First Five Nebraska Director Jason Prokop.
“The PLA brings public and private sector stakeholders together to address urgent child care issues that impact all Nebraskans,” Prokop said. “Each class brings a wealth of insight, expertise and passion for early childhood solutions that strengthen Nebraska communities, support our workforce, create prosperity and improve our state’s quality of life.”
The PLA program is led by First Five Nebraska Grassroots and Outreach Advisor Jodi-Renee Girón, who has more than 20 years’ experience in advocacy and movement building.
“The PLA goes beyond policymaking, it develops skilled, knowledgeable and credible movement builders who are prepared to lead change in their local communities,” she said.