United Way of Santa Fe County made a difficult decision 15 years ago to shift its mission from fundraising for a wide range of charitable causes to focusing solely on preschool and other services for young children.
The transition wasn’t easy. Dozens of local organizations long had relied on a funding stream from the organization.
But Katherine Freeman, who had been president of the local United Way for just under a year at the time, said the organization felt the change in how it targeted its resources would bring about the biggest impact.
“We feel like if we can make a significant difference in early childhood development, so that kids are ready to learn, then so many of the other indicators New Mexico struggles with will be affected,” Freeman said in June 2004. “There will be a lower crime rate, fewer high school dropouts, less teen pregnancies.”
United Way began offering parenting classes and home visits for new families, and it opened prekindergarten and classrooms. Within five years, Freeman said Tuesday, the nonprofit had expanded its work to include statewide policymaking, with a goal of changing the way New Mexico approaches early childhood care.
“We were doing OK on the groundwork,” she said, “but unless we got into the policy arena, it’s really hard to bring about meaningful change.”
Freeman spoke to a crowd of educators, businesspeople, politicians and other community leaders during a Tuesday celebration of a major step forward for United Way in its joint effort with other groups to expand and improve children’s services: legislation creating a new state Early Childhood Education and Care Department.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the measure into law in mid-March.
Through tours of preschools and child care facilities across the state, Freeman said, United Way saw a need for a new department dedicated to children from birth to age 5, rather than the current fragmented system of services spread throughout several agencies, such as the Children, Youth and Families Department, the Public Education Department and the Human Services Department.
Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, who has a background in education, praised the coalition of child services groups that had worked together to turn a long-term vision into reality.
During legislative discussions on a bill creating the new department, Morales said Tuesday, “We knew that the groundwork and foundation for this department had been laid years before.
“No longer are we just going to invest in the next election,” he added. “We’ve started investing in the next generation.”
Nora Sackett, a spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham, said a search for the first Cabinet secretary of the Early Childhood Education and Care Department is underway; however, funding for the position will not be available until July 1. The department should be fully staffed and operational by July 1, 2020, Sackett said.
Geoffrey Nagle, president and CEO of the Chicago-based Erikson Institute, an early child research, advocacy and higher education organization, lauded New Mexico for moving forward with the new department focusing on infants and children under 5.
“You can’t program your way out of it,” Nagle said of children falling behind. “You have to systematically support the children and families.
“We have a K-12 system,” he added, referring to public education nationwide. “But we need to build a whole new system for birth through 5. Here in Santa Fe, you are clearly on that track.”