PITTSFIELD — After a trying year for early educators, a local child care executive has earned recognition as a “commonwealth heroine.”
Kelly Marion, CEO of the Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center in Pittsfield, was among the women recognized June 23 as part of the 18th class of Commonwealth Heroines, a partnership between state lawmakers and the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women. Those recognized “may not always make the news, but they most assuredly make a difference,” according to a booklet publicizing this year’s honorees.
Marion also will be honored at the Tuesday meeting of the Pittsfield City Council.
“Maybe I’m the person who is recognized for the award, but I feel that we, as a field, really pulled together and supported families, and I’m, certainly, extremely proud of the staff and educators who work with me for doing their part,” said Marion, who added that she was supported by Brigham Center programming as a child. “It may be my picture that ends up in the book or ends up on the website, but it’s really the work that we in the child care community do to support children and their families that matters.”
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, nominated Marion to be recognized, praising Marion as a “strong leader” and a “fierce advocate” in the field.
“The pandemic made it crystal clear that quality child care is at the core of stabilizing families and a strong economy,” Farley-Bouvier said in a news release. “As we honor Kelly, we honor her whole team and all childcare providers.”
When the coronavirus pandemic shifted many schools to remote learning, child care providers were tasked with caring for students whose parents could not stay at home to supervise their studies.
After closing for about a week in March, at the order of Gov. Charlie Baker, the Brigham Center reopened to provide emergency child care for children whose parents worked in places such as hospitals, grocery stores and pharmacies. Through June, the center opened from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., caring for up to 40 children each day under revised safety and capacity restrictions.
“What we found was that our parents were not in a position to work from home,” Marion said. “The child care community did an outstanding job in stepping up and really providing what was a critical need for our families and for our state to even be looking at full reopening.”
Many families that the center serves rely on state subsidies for care. Among the 2,355 youths and families served in the 2020 fiscal year, 42 percent had an annual household income of less than $25,000, 47 percent were single-parent families and 46 percent identified with a minority background, Marion said.
Marion credited schools, youth services agencies, employers and the city of Pittsfield with working together to ensure that children who needed care could access it. The city helped the center receive remote learning grants, and the center also received support from a COVID-19 fund administered by the Berkshire United Way and the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation.
After wrapping up emergency child care in June, the center reopened under updated guidelines, accommodating up to 20 preschoolers and 90 school-age children per day. It also has offered other programming, either in person or remotely, including a summer camp and an enrichment program, as well as a Eureka! program, affiliated with Girls Inc., a science, technology, engineering and mathematics program for girls.
The center has two licensed social workers, who supported social and emotional learning at what Marion said was a crucial time for many children.
As the importance of child care has gained increased recognition during the pandemic, Marion said she hopes that greater public funding will follow. More support could chip away at long-term challenges in the sector, such as financial struggles and high turnover among staff, she said.
Early educators with a bachelor’s degree in Massachusetts earn 35.2 percent less, on average, than kindergarten-through-eighth grade teachers, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California-Berkeley.
“Our teachers really need to be paid at the level as their school counterparts in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education,” Marion said, adding that child care teachers are credentialed through degrees and extensive training.
“We’re doing our part on our end, and it would be great if the state and the federal government would fund child care the way they do K-12 schools.”