Tami Timmer: Taking Baby Steps Toward a Big Goal

February 23, 2022

“The Flance Early Learning Center in St. Louis is shaped like a hug,” says its executive director, Tami Timmer. “That’s because Flance is meant to embrace the community around it. Our three playgrounds are open to the community when the children aren’t using them. The same is true for the vegetable gardens that surround our center.” It’s a stunning, state-of the-art space filled with natural light and designed with elements inspired by the natural world.

Nearby is a grade school, a homeless shelter, low-income housing for seniors—and one of the poorest parts of Missouri, Timmer explains. “Flance was deliberately placed in this neighborhood because our mission goes beyond educating children. It’s also to support and strengthen the community and its families. We’re working for change and doing everything we can to break the poverty cycle in this part of the city. Most of the families we serve are one step away from going under and their children have been through trauma: domestic violence, hunger, homelessness, loss of parents to incarceration, serious health issues and every other social ill you can imagine.” It’s not easy, Timmer admits, for her nonprofit center to meet the needs of the community it serves.

It’s a good thing Timmer has a wide range of management skills she can draw on to make a difference. She’s been a retail manager and tour director, worked in pharmaceutical and software sales. She was also the COO of a community medicine group, where she provided mission-driven direction for 20 nonprofit health care groups that mainly serve young children. Along the way, she also served as a court-appointed special advocate to defend the interests of foster children and as a volunteer for Grace Hill Settlement House, where she helped secure Head Start services for 1,500 youngsters. In addition, she served as a business development volunteer for the Peace Corps in the Republic of Georgia, where she worked in a remote mountain village.

“I entered the Peace Corps through a nontraditional route,” Timmer recalls. “I was 50 years old and doing quite well in pharmaceutical sales. But I walked away after my 23-year-old nephew was diagnosed with brain cancer. He’s fine now, but it was scary at the time, and it made me rethink my life. I realized there wasn’t a lot of value in my sales career.” Yet it had equipped her with the expertise to help organizations improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their operations and systems. She put her skills to work for the Peace Corps as she did everything from HR to teacher training, civic education and securing funding for centers that served children with special needs.

The chance to serve young children directly drew her to Flance two years ago. Since then, she’s strived to make the center a resource for connecting children and families to all the things they need. “My experience straddling the for-profit and nonprofit worlds comes in handy,” she says, “in working with a wide range of partners to provide well-rounded services and supports. Flance partners with a health center that runs a clinic on site and a local hospital that provides dental care in a well-equipped bus. A grad student from a nearby college comes in to do art therapy. The local symphony orchestra helps us run a music program. We have a partner who provides our children with glasses, another who gives them audio care. And all these programs come together in a patchwork quilt designed to make a difference.”

It also covers the services teachers need to advance their skills and education. “Our partnership with Child Care Aware allows us to pay for our teachers to earn the Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™,” Timmer says. “We have three young women who graduated from high school last year, found their first jobs here and are now working on their CDA®. Now we’d like to build a pipeline for high school students to earn their CDAs and gain their experience hours here. But working with the local high school on this plan is hard because they’re dealing with the problems caused by COVID.”

Timmer also has problems because of the pandemic. “Since I came here in in February 2020, I’ve had four normal weeks,” she says. “Then we had to close from mid-March until June. And, like all early learning centers, we’re struggling because we can’t find enough teachers. Of course, part of the problem goes back to the low wages our educators earn. I believe anyone with a CDA who has been working five to ten years should earn $20 an hour, the wage that Amazon pays. Sadly, early learning centers like Flance can’t compete with that,” Timmer explains, “and it’s a national problem. There are millions of children who can’t be served because there aren’t enough teachers—and COVID has put a spotlight on the shortage.”

Still, there’s a “silver lining” in the clouds brought on by COVID, Timmer explains. “The pandemic gave us a chance to get even closer to the neighborhood. We started an after-school program for the grade school kids, who had absolutely nothing to do. I brought in AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers and together we joined the children in having fun. We shot hoops, picked green beans in the garden and went line skating in the streets. I got to know the kids, and now they knock on my window and ask me to come out and play.”

The local families also have a stronger connection to Flance since May of 2020 when Timmer started a food distribution program. “We give out a ton of fresh food every week, everything we don’t use ourselves,” she says. And it fills a glaring gap. “There are no grocery stores in the neighborhood, so our food distribution program is making a difference in families’ health and well-being. One of our seniors recently came over to me and said, ‘I’ve lost 13 pounds since you started providing this fresh food. It’s helped me control my blood pressure and diabetes.’”

The children are healthier, too, because of all the fresh produce they eat at Flance. “This year we grew purple cabbage,” Timmer says, “and when one mom saw it, she said her child would never eat it. But her son insisted, ‘Mommy, I love purple cabbage.’ So do the rest of the kids because when children see other children eating something they’ll eat it.” And getting children to like their veggies matters, Timmer says. “Sure, it’s a baby step, but it helps them be healthy, curious learners by the time they enter school.”

Flance has also taken steps to ensure the health and well-being of its staff, Timmer explains. “We have a therapist who comes in twice a week to help our teachers with self-care and give them a chance to discuss their mental health needs one-on-one, a new service that’s part of what we call our ‘year of self-care.’ We’re starting with our staff because if our staff isn’t healthy, they can’t take care of families in a positive way.”

Flance is always looking for ways to serve families better, so it has a program called Sip and Survey, Timmer says. “We bring parents into the classrooms, serve them hot cocoa, ask them what they need and connect them to community resources that can provide it.” Flance has also started a program called PITCH, or Parents If Talking Can Help, that provides Flance families with early education tips, chances to network and parenting ideas.

Running new programs like these depends on Timmer’s commitment to attracting new partners who can help her provide families with premier services at low or no cost. “Nonprofits,” she explains, “sometimes think that something is better than nothing, but I have a different point of view, especially when it comes to children. Our children deserve quality education, quality care, quality housing, and we’re trying to create a model for how to do that at Flance.”

Parents clearly feel that Flance is doing a great job, according to the feedback Timmer has received. “Flance has helped provide a safe, resourceful environment for our child, which has helped our family become more productive as a whole,” one parent said. “You’ve helped our family by providing loving, reliable care so we can be worry free at work,” another said. “My children love attending Flance, and I’ve seen so much growth in their social and speech skills. It has helped us by providing a great community for our family to be a part of,” yet another parent gratefully raved.

Joining folks in a common cause is the mission at Flance, as Timmer points out. “We are for and about community, and the more we work together, the more we’ll succeed. Flance is a wonderful example of what happens when the community comes together. There is a lot of laughter and smiling when you come here, despite the problems our children and families face. There is lightness and joy in this place, and the children are making progress,” as Timmer’s been thrilled to see. “One of my former parents recently told me that her five-year-old daughter is the top reader in her kindergarten class.” And successes like that keep Timmer going strong as she works to remove roadblocks for the community she serves.

“We’re not going to change the world at our center,” Timmer admits. But we can take “baby steps” toward this big goal. And that starts by helping our youngest children, according to a great human rights advocate and native of Missouri. Frederick Douglass knew, “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” as it says on a magnet in Timmer’s office. She looks at these words every day—and they express a belief we should all embrace.

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