PETOSKEY – Blair Cole knows the ins and outs of the struggles with child care in northern Michigan from two – make that three – perspectives. Since her youth, she’s made early childhood education her chosen profession, and learned first-hand about the financial difficulties of trying to move out of her parents ’home because of a full-time paycheck that amounted to poverty wages. Now a single mom of four children ages 5 to 9, Cole has likewise found it impossible to work outside the home for much of the past decade because of the price and accessibility of child care.
All this has led her in a new direction as a parent leader for the Think Babies Michigan initiative. Here she’s brought valuable first-hand perspectives around the policy changes Michigan needs to fix an inadequately funded system that’s not cutting it for providers or parents.
“It’s pretty tough to get child care around here; slots fill up quickly, even in afterschool care, even in summer camps. They’re pretty quickly gone,” Cole said. “I hear from others in the community about the problems of finding child care when you work off-shift, or in other cases of two parents working opposite shifts so someone can stay home with the children. You always see people on Facebook asking if anyone is available to watch their kids after school. It’s very stressful for parents. Definitely, more childcare is needed in our community.”
Wages for teachers and caregivers remain extremely low despite the importance placed on the work caregivers offer; that is, making it possible for parents to go to work to financially support their families and contribute to their local economies. When she was a new teacher with a CDA certificate, Cole took home $10 an hour and was making $10.75 an hour when she left the profession upon having children. Area wages today – around $11.24 an hour – aren’t self-supporting either, she said. “That’s a problem in the field,” she added. “I was only able to return to work recently because my youngest was able to attend a full-day preschool.” Without better wages, early learning educators raising families are hard pressed to take jobs that offer vital services to other working families in their communities.
As a volunteer parent leader with the Think Babies Michigan movement, Cole has had an impact on hundreds of parents she comes into contact with by hearing their stories and sharing their insights with policymakers. Helping other parents connect with needed community resources that can help their families gives Cole a sense of self-satisfaction, as well. “I’ve been around for a little bit, and I’m involved, and willing to get the word out. It does feel good to help someone else in some way, and ease their burden a little bit.”
Being part of the Think Babies initiative has empowered her to influence change. In particular, she has appreciated gaining new knowledge and understanding about how various policies work, what makes them work, and when they don’t. In addition to her involvement with Think Babies Michigan, Cole has been active in her local Great Start Collaborative, and has served as a policy chair for her child’s Head Start program. She regularly travels to gatherings of the Michigan Head Start Association across the state for learning and networking. In the past year, she’s assumed greater responsibilities as a member of Head Start’s State Policy Council. And recently she was certified as a trained doula, or birth worker. Cole relates a poignant discussion from her Great Start Parent Coalition study group in which the group examined the New York Times Best seller, Parent Nation. “There was one quote from the book that goes, ‘The more voices together, the better we are heard.’ I think about that a lot.”
To parents who aren’t sure if they have time to get involved in organizations for and about parents because of family responsibilities, Cole says she’s made it work by thinking of her organizational activities as making time for herself, and her own personal and professional development. “Think Babies Michigan and the Head Start Policy Council – that’s my time to take a moment and focus on self-care, even though my kids are always on my brain,” she said.
Despite the financial challenges of single-parenthood, Cole said she loves being a parent, and loves challenging herself to consider each child’s unique needs and how to raise each one based on their individual needs. She describes their time together as non-stop fun, even when she’s fishing her hairbrush out of the toilet as she did the other day because of a kid’s prank. “I’m lucky to have them. They’re a blast,” Cole said. “And it’s never a dull day.”
More than 950 Michigan families, advocates, researchers, government officials, service providers and parents convened to create the Think Babies Michigan 2020-2025 Policy Agenda. Michigan is the only state in this national movement to intentionally prioritize having parents co-lead and co-design our policy agenda-setting process. Click below to learn more and join the initiative.