Tabitha Williams | On Early Learning and Lead

August 23, 2023

Tabitha has long used her skills as a certified nursing assistant to help seniors stay safe and healthy in their homes. Her attention switched to a different age group when she went through a family crisis. “In 2016, my five-year-old daughter almost died from a severe asthma attack brought on by dust in my home,” Tabitha recalls. She knew about the risks of lead and unsafe water, but she didn’t realize that her own home in Grand Rapids, MI, could be a danger zone.

“As a parent, I was upset that I couldn’t protect my daughter,” Tabitha says. “And I was really upset because I knew that people were talking about lead, and I wanted to know why parents weren’t part of those conversations—why solutions were being considered without hearing from parents. As a young Black mother, the biggest challenge for me was looking for that support to have a seat at the table where change was supposed to happen.”

Tired of systems that led to unsafe homes, Tabitha founded Parents for Healthy Homes. Her parent-led group launched a campaign for funding to address the lead problem in homes across Grand Rapids. They collected signatures from families citywide, met with local officials and attended public meetings. After six months of advocacy, Tabitha and the parents received the funding they needed to test more homes and protect more children.

Families also face other challenges in the low-income community where Tabitha lives. That’s where she recruits parents by going door-to-door, providing food and holding events that build trust. “For example,” she says, “we throw a strong family celebration that gives community members the chance to engage with each other and the members of my group. The families play basketball, eat snow cones, get to know us and talk about the changes they’d like to see.”

The parents also bring their concerns to the monthly meetings that Tabitha holds. “We have policy, community involvement and education groups,” Tabitha explains. “Parents can choose one group depending on what interests them most.” The parents commit to dedicate 10 to 15 hours a month to volunteering for Tabitha’s group and attending training. They’re willing to do the work, but a major roadblock stands in the way, as Tabitha has seen. “Child care is the number-one barrier that prevents parents from being active in our meetings and events” she says, “so I wanted to reduce that barrier in parents’ lives.”

Many parents in Grand Rapids face the same issue, and that got Tabitha interested in helping folks earn their Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™. “I learned about the CDA® from one of the members of my group. She’s a CDA holder who provides child care at Baxter Community Center in Grand Rapids, and she told me there was a lot of funding to help people earn their CDA. And it turned out that Vibrant Futures, a local nonprofit, provides scholarships to help people build careers and offers courses for the CDA. “We received our CDA books early this year and several parents in my group are now doing the training online,” as Tabitha explains.

Tabitha is also enrolled in the program since she would like to switch from caring for the aged to caring for the young. And she believes her experience with seniors has prepared her in some ways to work with children. “You have to show the same sense of dedication and love,” she says. “You also have to work with family members, and I’m learning to do that even better by earning my CDA. In my courses at Vibrant Futures, they’re not just teaching us to care for the child. They’re teaching us to take care of the whole family, too, and this holistic approach is very important to me.”

She knows the stress that many families in her community face, so she has become a mental health ambassador at Calvin College, where she helps to raise awareness of mental health stigmas and the issues that produce then. She has also partnered with Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI), a Chicago nonprofit, to provide parents with mental health training in a Grand Rapids church. “COFI’s model for community change teaches people how to set realistic goals and how to deal with stress,” as Tabitha explains. “That’s important because you can’t be at your best, as either a parent or a teacher, when you’re feeling stressed out.”

And Tabitha makes attending the training stress-free for the parents by providing them with transportation and child care when they meet in the church. “The church has a day care with qualified teachers,” she says, “and I assist them with the children while the parents attend training. Doing this has allowed me to gain some of my experience hours toward the CDA,” she explains. “Now I hope that I and the other members of my group can gain the rest of our experience hours at Baxter Community Center. We’re now working out the details on how we can partner with Baxter to help the parents complete their credential.”

After Tabitha earns her CDA, she plans to open a child care center while continuing to expand her organization. And these plans are intertwined in her ultimate goal to build more vibrant futures for families in Grand Rapids. “We have to stop thinking in siloes,” she explains. “Mental health, lead-free housing and quality early learning are all essential for healthy homes. I’m working to get that message across, and the bonds I’ve built with parents in my community will help me succeed in pushing for needed reforms. Change moves at the speed of trust.”

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