Civic Warriors

The Future of Early Childhood Education With Strong Starts for Success

Civic Warriors Episode 41 With Strong Starts for Success

Strong Starts for Success is a not-for-profit with a mission to provide a safe, high-quality, affordable, community-based, holistic education for Liberia’s youngest children. We speak with the Founder & Executive Director, Hailey Breitenfeld, about her passion for early childhood education and how that drove her to start Strong Starts for Success. She explains the current education landscape in Liberia, the issues that are faced, and the education model she plans to implement. Listen to learn about her vision for the future of Strong Starts for Success and how we as listeners can help support the communities in need of these education centers!

“I truly believe that children are the future.”

Transcript:

This podcast was transcribed through a third-party application. Please disregard any misrepresentations.

Brad Caruso:

Welcome to Civic Warriors, brought to you by Withum. On this podcast, we bring the conversation to you, sharing, engaging stories that motivate and build consensus in the nonprofit community. This podcast is about the innovators, the leaders on the frontline of adversity, guiding lights in the nonprofit industry affecting change. And through their stories, we can all join forces to become civic warriors. Hey Warriors. Welcome to today’s episode of Civic Warriors. Brought to you by with, I’m your host, Brad Caruso, leader of rhythms not-for-profit practice. You know, the not-for-profit industry does so much good for the world, but sometimes there are small things that happen that make all the difference. And as you know, not-for-profits always need a variety of assistance. And wise counsel. For many, you know, in my practice I work with hundreds of non-profits and people and I’m introduced in a wide variety of ways.

Brad Caruso:

Our guest today, Hailey Breitenfeld, is gonna share her story and the mission of her not-for-profit Strong Starts for Success. You know, Hailey and I met through a group called the Authority Group and I was offering some just basic education on not-for-profits, getting assistance, submitting budgets. And that group works with individuals with missions in Africa to create budgets. And so, as you know, budgets and submitting grant proposals to obtain funding is so integral to getting a charitable mission off the ground. And I was super fortunate to meet Hailey through this process and hear her personal story, which I know you were gonna love. You know, we often take for granted early childhood education in the United States, the importance of that education. And the reality is that most children in the US have access within their community schools, resources, basic necessities like food, water, electricity, wifi, as uh, Hailey will comment on. And you know, the best part about today is Hailey’s not-for-profit, that she started Strong Starts for Success, has a mission to provide safe, high quality, affordable, community based, and holistic education for Liberia’s youngest children. And so with all of that said, Hailey, welcome to the show.

Hailey Breitenfeld:

Thank you so much. Thanks for having me. Yeah, I’m excited to be here and share about Strong Starts for Success and how we got to where we are today.

Brad Caruso:

You have a super cool story coming in, starting a nonprofit, you know, obviously having experience working in education, uh, in Liberia. So I’d love to start off just by asking, you know, what drove you to found Strong Starts for Success?

Hailey Breitenfeld:

Yeah, so I actually have had the privilege to live, work and travel in various African countries since about 2010, about 12 years now, working in different parts of the education sector. But I’m always drawn back to early childhood to the youngest kids. That’s my passion. So really I’ve had experience with all sorts of stuff. I’ve been a teacher in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia. I taught here in Liberia. I’ve been a teacher trainer in Kenya. Um, I was a principal in Tanzania. I’ve done research. Um, I’ve written curriculum for Liberian Sierra Leone. So kind of gathered all these different things and had so many experiences that have led me to open up my world to what is education around the world and how it is different from what I grew up with. So I’ve seen things that people in the US might not believe, but I have seen them over time. ,

Hailey Breitenfeld:

I’ve seen children being cared for those hardly old enough to care for than themselves. You can just imagine like a six year old walking down the road, a busy road, with an infant strapped to her back with a piece of cloth holding a toddler’s hand. That’s a lot of times what really childhood care and education looks like here in Liberia and in African countries that I’ve experienced, if they are lucky enough to be in a classroom, often it’s high class size, like a hundred plus kids sitting in these crowded desks and you just, they’re big bright eyes looking back at you sometimes with the teacher, sometimes without. But then there’s also the amazing stuff like teachers that engage all those a hundred kids dancing and singing with cultural games and things to get them excited. But what I always see is that kids want to go to school, they want to learn.

Hailey Breitenfeld:

I’ve seen kids walking miles every day just to get to school. And so providing these opportunities for early childhood that really isn’t available here is something that’s always been on my mind. The majority of the population can’t access this. Why? Why is that? So throughout all these experiences I’ve been like, let me see, let me test out this little thing in this country and see if maybe that could work. Right? If that might be a solution. And one thing that I always like to share is how resourcefulness matters. You can create an early childhood classroom anywhere with any materials. One of my favorite ones is to collect bottle caps. So most sodas and water and everything here comes in disposable plastic or in glass bottles. And the caps aren’t reusable. So I’ll tell kids, oh, go collect the bottle caps and when they bring me enough, I’ll write the letters A to Z on them. And there’s so many games you can play. They can identify their letters, they can play with sounds. I’ve actually had older kids who are like, can you make us a game? And we made a Scrabble set or a banana gram set from something that most people consider trash. So taking all these ideas, it’s been like, okay, I have to do something with this. This is what I’m meant to do is take all these experiences and ideas and apply for children and let them have a place that’s safe to learn in.

Brad Caruso:

Yeah. And it’s so integral and important to the fact that you’re creating an innovative way to keep kids engaged, to educate. I think there’s a lot that we can learn off today’s episode on some of the opportunities that exist and and with what your not-for-profit is doing as well as some of the challenges that you run across. And you know, one of those first challenges, obviously you’ve started a not-for-profit, there’s a lot of things that go into that. What was it like for you starting your own not-for-profit, you know, taking your education background and then saying, I’m gonna make this bigger than what it’s

Hailey Breitenfeld:

Whew. Um, loaded question. , I feel like I’m still starting it now. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. Getting to see this dream come to reality. Getting to help more and more people than I would just being in a classroom, being an educator and helping one classroom at a time. Getting to interact with communities. So I actually am in a unique situation where we are registered in the US as a 501c3 and we’re also registered in Liberia. So we’re kind of operating two nonprofits at the same time, under two different rules, which has been one of the hardest parts. And I am going at this alone currently, but I’m not really alone. I’m lucky enough to have the support of a big group of family and friends. Also the authority group. This accelerator really has helped me to widen my network of professionals.

Hailey Breitenfeld:

Help give me advice on things for you about the business side, the budget side, things that just weren’t in my wheelhouse. So having this network and this comradery with other people that are going through the same thing right now really has been helpful. But I mean there’s obviously things that you could go back in time that I would maybe change. I did not expect there to be so much emphasis on fundraising and administration being the founder. And I guess I should have anticipated that, but my naive aspect was like, oh, I’m gonna get to work with programming and teachers and kids every day. And yeah, I get to do that every day and I love that. But you also have to come back and do the paperwork and pay people salaries and work on the budget. So I think just being prepared that you are a jack of all traits when you start a nonprofit and knowing that it’s gonna be okay and you’re gonna learn how to do it. And if you reach out to people, you’re gonna broaden that network and people are gonna help you. And I so appreciate the network that I’ve created from starting Strong Starts for Success.

Brad Caruso:

Yeah, you bring up such valiant points that I think a lot of individuals that embark upon their own not-for-profit or their own mission, don’t always think about. You know, some of those are on the administrative side, like you mentioned, operating in two countries, you know, US laws complicated itself. Then you have local law in Liberia, then you have, how do those two interact with each other? So you have that challenge. But you know, certainly the network you’ve created is the super important from my own experience. It’s interesting, but one of the reasons I started this podcast altogether was a young lady named Tamar Mardirossian, and she has an organization that did music education in Armenia. And she actually asked me how do I increase my fundraising bank? She was flying over Armenia all the time. She was doing the direct education, you know, she was the organization.

Brad Caruso:

Mm-hmm. for mm-hmm for a long time. Uh, now has done a great job of building the vouch out. But you know, thinking about that in total, that was one of the main asks, well how do I do fundraising? So I love that you brought that up. And for our listeners out there, if you’re contemplating starting a nonprofit or you’re thinking about that, you know, one of the things you always have to think about is where’s money coming from to fund this mission? You know, it’s great if you wanna fund yourself, but then how do you scale? You know? And then the next question becomes how do you scale? How do you then bring in enough money to then support employee number two to the organization? Most people on your level don’t even take a salary cuz there’s not a salary to be taken. And so, you know, secondly, I think you got very lucky in being connected to a network.

Brad Caruso:

You mentioned to me early on that you use an attorney to help you with the initial paperwork to file the nonprofit stuff. That’s super important to get legal counsel involved to just help you frame that, especially when you’re working internationally. Cuz there are considerations. I was fortunate to be introduced to you and just, you know, I was, I I always loved just sharing any kind of advice or, or thoughts that I have. And certainly I could see, you know, even with you building your Excel spreadsheets, how do I build this Excel spreadsheet? Those are, those are definitely important lessons that you don’t always think about, but you’re right. You’re the jack of all trades and you must be the master of all to make it successful. So buckle up and quick

Hailey Breitenfeld:

Put it on, we’re going full speed.

Brad Caruso:

Yeah, just put the helmet on, it’ll be good. So what I wanted to cover today a little bit is, uh, maybe talk to us a little bit about your experience on the ground in Liberia, about the environment, about, you know, some of the challenges in education and, and we can go from there.

Hailey Breitenfeld:

Okay. So how much time do we have ? I’ve learned so much since having my feet land on the ground here in Liberia. First off, um, for those of you who don’t know where Liberia is, it’s a beautiful tropical country located just of the equator in West Africa. Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, Sierra Leone to the north, beginning to the east and Côte d’Ivoire or Ivory Coast to the south. Lots of forests, beaches, all types of beautiful environments you could imagine. But there are obvious, obviously some issues. They have been racked by civil war that ended in the early two thousands, then they were hit by the Ebola crisis. That’s probably what most people know Liberia for in 2015. And then of course, just like the rest of the world, they weren’t spared by Covid. So it’s been a little bit challenging for the education system, but everything I’ve learned has taught me the necessity of me being here and Strong Starts for Success being here.

Hailey Breitenfeld:

So Liberia’s an extremely young population, 15% of the population is five years and under, that’s compared to the US having 6% of its population being five years and under. So my target population is huge. However, only a third of these kids actually benefit from early childhood services right now. So the access really isn’t there. People aren’t getting what they need in that sense. Kids are starting school really like 50% of early childhood students are six years and older. That’s like two years older than what they should be. Which actually contributes to Liberia having the highest overage population in sub-Saharan Africa for school children. Um, which leads to a host of other issues. High dropout rates, kids not being engaged, difficulty for teachers changing the developmentally appropriate level to teach things when they’re not the age they should be. Think about it, would you wanna be a teenager, a 13 year old kid sitting in a third grade classroom trying to practice your phonics? No, when you’re 13 you wanna be listening to music after school with your friends hanging out with.

Brad Caruso:

Your peers. Yeah.

Hailey Breitenfeld:

Yeah. Not with 6, 7, 8 year olds. So this leads to another step that I wanted to share that Librarians on average attend only 4.4 years of school compared to the worldwide average of 11.2. So there’s a long way to go. And when we not only look at the quantity, but we look at the quality of education that’s happening within these classrooms and we adjust that number for the actual learning. It’s only about 2.3 years of schooling that librarians get in their lifetime. So it’s an issue. Um, part of that is that there isn’t enough teachers, there isn’t enough classrooms, they’re overcrowded. So kids are having to operate on a shift system. A lot of kids go to school in the morning, then they’re free in the afternoon or are free in the morning, come to school in the afternoon. Which obviously decreases the amount of learning that’s happening within a given year.

Hailey Breitenfeld:

Another major issue that’s facing the education system here is the cost. The sustainable development goals want education to be free for all. And the world is saying now universal free primary education and it’s great, it’s a great slogan. However, it’s not the reality on the ground between uniforms, registration fees, event fees, testing fees, school supplies, it adds up. And when your family makes only about survives on about a dollar twenty-five a day, how can you afford to send your 2, 3, 4 kids to school? You can’t really. So we can kind of see where these issues are coming from. It’s systematic. And when we get down to the ECE level, the actual number of schools that are available are very low. There’s not many choices and it’s even more expensive. For example, where I am that’s outside the capital, it’s Buchanan, Liberia and it’s about two and a half hours south of the capital. And most of the early childhood centers that exist here cost about $200 a year. That’s US dollars. That’s not including their uniforms or their school supplies or any meals throughout the day. So if you did the quick math, it’s not really affordable. So the data shows there’s a high need and I was like, let’s get in here, let’s get down to work and help fix these systematic issues.

Brad Caruso:

So putting context to that and uh, Brad’s mind gravitates right towards math. So the average individual you said makes about a dollar twenty-five a day. Correct. The average cost of education is approximately $200 a year. And that doesn’t include a lot of the basic necessities such as nutrition, such as clothing, such as clothing. Yeah. A variety of other, you know, supplies that I miss my trapper keeper when I was growing up, you know, things like that that a lot of us take for granted and we think about this and we say, well, you know, a dollar a day for us, for me to donate a dollar a day, you know, that would be $365 a year. If you donated $2 a day, you could support three children’s education for the year. And like a lot of us never put context to that actual fact. Mm-hmm. .

Brad Caruso:

And it’s like, well how do I give money to the right party to make that happen? Right. Like that’s what I always think about, like how do I get this $200 in your hands to like make that happen? Because to me donating $200 is, it’s not changing anything in my personal life. Mm-hmm and for most people it probably isn’t, but for their life you’re absolutely changing their life by donating that $200. And so I appreciate you bringing into statistics and and sharing that because I think, you know, you need the person like yourself on the ground doing the work, but also too, to make it happen, one of the main challenges is definitely a financial challenge to be able to financially support it. As far as your education model, I know you mentioned on your background you talked about curriculum. What is a typical curriculum when it comes to the children you’re working with? I, I think you mentioned, you know, early childhood I guess would be probably what, six months to five years give or take, is that right?

Hailey Breitenfeld:

Yeah, we’re gonna, we’re gonna do about a year, I forgot to mention this earlier, but we don’t have refrigeration, we don’t have electricity and internet and all that at our center. So it’s gonna be hard to store breast milk, which is best for young children to supplement their feeding. So we’re gonna start about a year.

Brad Caruso:

Got it. Talk a little bit about your curriculum. You know, how do you approach education? What are some of the things that you’re working on with these young children?

Hailey Breitenfeld:

Yeah, so I guess before we even get to the kids, you have to think about the educators who is in the room with them. So a big part of what we do is actually we are changing the model a bit. What exists here, there are teacher training colleges, but I’ve seen them and I wanna shake it up and give them a little bit more and bring in what’s called a play-based learning curriculum. So kids need to learn, they need to play. Play is the work of childhood and that’s not what’s happening here. So we’re actually taking community members who may be from their circumstances, we’re able to continue their education but are invested in their community and wanna help their kids get a better situation. And we’re training them to be their teachers for the early childhood classroom. So we’re doing three months of pre-service training, that’s things from child development to teacher pedagogy to what is a play-based curriculum, how do you make it, how do you create materials when you have limited resources and making sure they’re ready to get in there and be with the kids, which are gonna start in January, actually. That’s very exciting. Right now we’re training the teachers, but once we get the kids in there, it’s gonna look a little different than what I described. Also with what’s going on now, we are not going to be charging quite as much as the other schools. We’re gonna lower that cost and we’re also going to include two meals a day because as you and I know, when your stomach is rumbling, you can’t learn. And that affects kids even more. So two meals a day, everything else you need supplies and everything for a hundred to $150 a year depending on the age of the child. Obviously when they’re younger we need more caregivers and more attention for them. Additionally, we’re providing a nine to one student to teacher ratio, which doesn’t sound amazing if you think of US context, but if you think what we’re coming from, which is a 56 to one ratio for early childhood, oh my gosh. I mean just imagine being a teacher in a three year old classroom with sixty 3 year olds running around. How are you gonna get their attention?

Brad Caruso:

Not. Yeah, I’m not, my kids are four and six and I can’t corral them. So yeah, I I, I can’t imagine 56, I can’t even imagine nine. I know my daughter’s daycare, they have two teachers and there’s about 20 kids in the classroom, so it’s a little bit similar. But even then I know like your model of play-based education and incorporating them in doing like you have to do that otherwise kids are kids. Kids are kids.

Hailey Breitenfeld:

Exactly. You have to be developmentally appropriate. You have to make it fun, you have to make it play. That’s what they like to do. That’s how they learn. Why are we trying to change that? Why are we trying to make them grow up before they should? You got plenty of time to be an adult .

Brad Caruso:

Yeah, being an adult is not as fun. I, I’ll be honest.

Hailey Breitenfeld:

no . How do you think to work with young children? Yeah, so then the last aspect that we bring in in our model is the community engagement. We know that when kids go home, their learning doesn’t stop. Their family, their parents, the people around them make an impact also. So we wanna make sure that we bring those people in and we say, Hey, come learn about what we’re doing. So we’re gonna hold like forums and sessions where we invite not only the parents from our center, but anyone in the community that wants to come and listen about the topic, confront some challenges and things that are maybe against the cultural norm but might be what science says is best for kids and bring it to community and let’s say, hey, let’s have a conversation about this. Let’s see how we can make our children’s lives better.

Hailey Breitenfeld:

And the reason this part is so important for our model at Strong Starts for Success is because eventually we want the community to take ownership of this center. We wanna be able
to say you’re handling the day to day operations, we’re still gonna support you and we’re gonna still support these financially and with professional development and all of that, but we want you to handle the day to day operations and really be involved in your kids’ lives and we’re gonna go to another community and be able to replicate this. So eventually we wanna go to scale. That’s the dream. And this community aspect is a huge part of making that happen.

Brad Caruso:

In your experience, do you find that the community itself, like embraces, you know, I’ll call it western education, you’re classically trained from colleges and universities over here, uh, United States. Like do they embrace you coming in and trying to help? Do you find you get pushback? Do you find there’s some challenges with that?

Hailey Breitenfeld:

Uh, I would say yes and no. There’s some people who jump on board and I’ll tell you an example of one in a minute who want to just be involved and they’re like, oh my gosh, this is great, right? They are like, I’ve seen this with kids and I’ve seen when you let them play, they like it and everything. Um, and I’m starting to see that with the caregivers during their training right now they’re coming up to me and saying, oh my gosh, I can’t believe we did it this way for so long. Actually what you’re saying makes sense. Today I had a caregiver come up to me and she says, my children were outside playing in the yard and there was a motorcycle going by and I wanted to yell at them. No, stop, don’t go there. But she’s like, I remembered our training.

Hailey Breitenfeld:

And I went over and I said, can you come play over here? And she gave them another option and it worked. And she goes, I remembered back when I yelled at them and it didn’t work. They almost got hit by the motorbike anyways. And I yelled. So really giving people a chance to understand these ideas and sit with them for a little bit and see how they apply to their lives tends to get them on board. It might not be immediate, but it will happen over time I’ve seen. And the person I wanted to tell you about that jumped on board right away is actually the reason I’m starting in Liberia. The reason I’m starting in this Harville community, his name is Pastor Dave Brown and I was introduced to him by a mutual friend and he wanted to do something with education in his community but didn’t really know what to do.

Hailey Breitenfeld:

So he was looking for some advice. I’m like, oh, I’m happy to talk to you. Well, after we talked about it and he asked me about what is Strong Starts for Success? What’s the mission? Mission, what are you hoping to do? And at this point it was a dream. There wasn’t really anything on paper. I explained it to him. We were sitting inside his church, he says, come outside with me for a minute. And I’m like, okay, sure we’re in the middle of a conversation but okay. And we walked up behind this church and he shows me this unfinished string of rooms and he says, I will give you this building to use to make your dream a reality if you bring it to my community. And my jaw kind of dropped, right? Like one of the biggest costs for an organization is space, land and space. And I was being offered this without even asking. So after more conversations, we decided that we’re gonna do this. And that’s kind of where and why Strong Starts for Success is starting right now. And in Liberia we were offered a building in kind by a community that saw the need and the want for our mission and our vision. So yeah, that’s kind of how I’ve seen the community in this sense jump on board and want this here.

Brad Caruso:

Yeah, and I mean that’s the stars aligning without a doubt. That is everything that you’ve done, it’s incredible that it led to that moment and and you had that opportunity and you brought it to a reality. Yeah, Hailey, so this is phenomenal and with the center opening soon and with everything you’ve done, obviously putting in your own resources, you’ve done your own fundraising, how can the public help you? How can people donate to you and and what do you need? What is gonna help you take this off the ground and not only to this one center, to this one school, to this one mission? How do you expand it to your vision and your dream of having multiple, of expanding this, you know, Strong Starts of Success as a model. It’s not one individual school. How do you do that? What do you need?

Hailey Breitenfeld:

Yeah, so like you’re saying, the next big task is to furnish the center. Make sure the rooms are stocked with beautiful materials and colorful things that engage the kids and invite them to come in and learn. Make parents want to send their children to this center. So you’ve said it, fundraising is a huge part of being a founder. If people are feeling so inclined, they can head to our website that strongstartsforsuccess.org and click the donate button. A little goes a long way. So let me just give you some more numbers since we’re talking about those. So for example, $155 provides a child with two nutritious meals a day for a whole school year. $1,200 provides the teacher’s salary for the whole year. So these are small numbers in the US context, but here it makes a huge difference. We’re obviously, like Brad said, we’re wanting to go to scale.

Hailey Breitenfeld:

So if we can get more people involved giving at small amounts and consistently, then we’re gonna be able to move on and get into that next community and expand this model and get to even more children with time. I mean, I truly believe that children are the future and if we start young, we can build a foundation that’s not only gonna serve the protective factor for life later challenges, but it’s gonna help unlock their unlimited potential, which is what we’re trying to do here at Strong Starts for Success. Thank you Brad, so much for having me. It’s been fabulous talking about our mission and the important work we’re doing.

Brad Caruso:

Thank you so much Hailey for joining today’s episode. I mean, it certainly was a pleasure to have you here. I, I certainly appreciate hearing those numbers directly on $155, $1,200 a year for a salary for a teacher. Those are manageable numbers. Those are numbers that every one of you can help support early childhood education and help Hailey’s mission and what she’s doing. Thank you Warriors so much for listening. I hope that you took away how hard Hailey works, how she’s taken initiative and started this and building it as the stars align there to affect change on so many lives. And please provide your support, as she mentioned, go to strongstartsforsuccess.org. We certainly look forward to you in two weeks to see our next episode. And you know, as mentioned, Strong Starts for Success starts with you. So we’re happy to share your mission, Hailey, and thanks so much for being here.

Hailey Breitenfeld:

Thank you so much for having me.