Jessica Moore: Working on Behalf of Wayne County

April 27, 2022

A couple of years ago, Hamida Kali volunteered at the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, where Jessica served as early childhood services director. Hamida was there to help out in her child’s Head Start classroom in Highland Park, MI, a short distance from Detroit. She had no idea this would lead to a career. Then she learned of the LEAP to Teach early childhood educator apprenticeship program. In a few months she earned a Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™ and found a job as an assistant teacher. She continued attending college after completing LEAP to Teach and was promoted to teacher just a year after starting her career in early childhood education.

Recently, Jessica also advanced in her career and now serves Wayne Metro as executive director for Whole Family Success, a county-wide program that helps thousands. It’s a role that goes beyond the supervision of early childhood programs. She’s responsible for prenatal to 12th-grade programs, child and community food programs, finding grants to increase services, and managing budgets to maximize resources moving ahead. That’s a heavy load, and COVID has made her job even harder as she deals with staffing shortages, an increase in community needs and a rise in challenging behavior among the many children affected by the pandemic.

“The children weren’t going to parks or playgroups, so they don’t know how to share or interact with other kids,” Jessica says. And these young learners aren’t the only ones who are now having issues. “We’re a Head Start program, so we are dealing with high-risk populations. My staff and I saw families lose loved ones and jobs. Local businesses went under, and many people didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. There were a lot of stressors in the community we serve,” Jessica says. It’s a good thing she has the experience and drive it takes to make a difference for those in need.

And Jessica’s interest in helping young children goes way back to the influence of a caring neighbor who lived on the street where she grew up. “She was a first-grade teacher,” Jessica says, “and all the local kids used to hang out at her house or in her yard. She was the first person who took the time and had the patience to show me what a teacher can do for a child. She would help us with our homework. She knew how to make learning fun. And she made me want to give children the same great experiences I’d had with her.”

So, Jessica studied education in college. “That was probably when I realized that I wanted to work with young children from birth to five years old. When I started doing my student teaching, I got to see the impact you can make on that early age group,” Jessica recalls. And she knows how those children are doing because she’s still in touch with some of them or their parents. “My first class are now college juniors, and it’s exciting to know I’ve played a small role in what they’ve achieved,” she says.

And Jessica went on to make an impact on more children after graduating from college in 2004. She worked as a teacher for Bright Horizons and then Head Start, so she was in the classroom for three years before assuming roles that took her into the areas of training and technical assistance, subject matter expertise, monitoring and compliance. This combination of experience in both the classroom and administration has equipped her to work with Head Start programs in building quality and boosting the services they provide. “I’ve really been able to connect with teachers,” she says, “and have close relationships with them in a way that’s not possible for people who’ve never stepped foot in an early childhood classroom.”

This classroom experience has led her to be an inclusive leader who’s committed to building the strengths of her staff. “I really believe firmly in depending on a team and not just myself,” Jessica says. “I want teachers to have a voice over what they do in the classroom since they’re the ones who are doing the actual work every day. I tell my team all the time that I don’t exist without you. So, if I won an award, you won it for me,” she explains. “Ultimately, everything we do goes back to the frontline staff who are actually in the field.”

That approach has helped her retain many staff at a time when early childhood teachers are leaving the field. So has the emphasis on self-care for staff that she’s adopted since the start of the pandemic. “We wanted to rethink how we were supporting staff,” Jessica says, “so we did things like hand out wellness baskets and offer quiet spaces for stress-relieving activities. We’ve also provided mental health consultants who teachers can consult online without leaving the classroom. And we’re always trying to find more ways to let our teachers know we’re thinking about them.” And that helped her retain 99 percent of her staff in 2020. “But in the last year,” she admits, “we’ve lost more teachers and have more vacancies than I’ve ever seen.”

One of the ways, she’s building up her program’s workforce is by obtaining more funding for the LEAP to Teach program. “It’s available to Head Start parents and people from the community who want to enter the early childhood education field,” Jessica explains. “We’ve collaborated with one of our local community colleges for them to obtain their CDA® coursework, which allows them to walk away with 16 college credits. While they’re working on their CDA, they can gain the required experience hours by volunteering in our classrooms. And we’ve even been able to provide our LEAP to Teach trainees with a stipend to smooth their way.”

And the CDA has opened doors for many people who’ve had bad experiences in their career path or education, Jessica explains. “The CDA has shown them that they don’t have to be so intimidated by school, and many have gone on to get their associate degree. It’s part of Head Start’s mission to help families thrive by putting them on the path to a more productive future. And many people have responded to the opportunity we provide. We always begin by reaching out to our Head Start families, but we also do a lot of recruitment in the community around us. Recently, we sent out a text message about the program to our community members and received over 40 responses that showed interest in working in the early childhood field.”

The folks who’ve flourished because of the program include Brittany King, who entered the CDA program while she was studying liberal arts in college. “She had picked this subject at random, then dropped out of college because she didn’t really know what she would do with her degree,” Jessica recalls. “Yet she had a sense of drive and just needed someone to mentor her, as I did after she started our LEAP to Teach program. After completing it, she was quickly promoted to a teacher position because she had some college credits. And now she’s back in school working toward a degree in early childhood education.”

Brittany is also working for Jessica’s program as a manager for food distribution. “We’ve really needed people to step up during the pandemic and take the lead on some of our programs for refugees,” Jessica says. “Brittany is a natural leader and she’s now heading our efforts to assist Afghan refugees. She makes sure they get food, provides diapers to the families with young children and helps meet any other needs the refugees may have.”

The refugee program is one of the ways Jessica is helping the community around her get through the current crisis. So is the support she provides to small businesses that suffered during the recent financial downturn. Partnerships with a small-scale wholesale food supplier, a local food bank and an educational toy store became mutually beneficial relationships that helped the community through the turbulent time and became a lifeline for businesses facing closure.

These small suppliers were less likely than the big box vendors to survive the pandemic, as Jessica understood. So, they were eager to fill her program’s needs and went the extra mile to serve her. “For example, Atlas Wholesale Food, which normally supplies us with meals and snacks, provided us with diapers at a time when there were no diapers on shelves within 30 miles,” Jessica says. “Learning Gizmos, a local teaching store, filled our needs when we had to close for a while and were trying to put together at-home activity kits. They went so far as to bag all our individual kits and deliver them to our sites across Wayne County at the last minute.”

This white glove service filled a gap for Jessica’s programs at a difficult time and set up a model for collaboration going ahead. The local companies she’s supported can measure the value of the relationship in dollars and cents. But Jessica’s reward is more internal and helping these small businesses survive COVID is part of a broader goal. “I’ve always been the type of person who wants to see everyone succeed,” she says. “Even on the hardest days, I can find the positive if I’ve helped meet the needs of one child, one family or one member of the community I serve.” It fills her bucket to work on behalf of Wayne County every day.

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