When Executive Director Betty Jo Gaines walks into one of her classrooms at Bright Beginnings, a nonprofit established in 1991 to provide free, full-day, year-round childcare and family support services to homeless families with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, a chorus of voices shouts out, "Hi, Dr. Gaines!" Gaines may be the administrator for the organization, but she is clearly seen as extended family to the many children and families who benefit from Bright Beginning's services.
The former Director of the DC Department of Parks and Recreation and thirty-year civil servant with a degree in special education became Executive Director in 2001 and quickly immersed herself in the organization, tackling some of the largest challenges: lack of parent participation, a teaching staff without certification, and a lack of funding.
Recognizing that high staff turnover was a constant drain on the organization and especially problematic for children in desperate need of stability in their lives, Gaines immediately took steps to strengthen and stabilize Bright Beginnings staff, hiring teachers with college degrees and instituting a new tuition reimbursement policy to encourage professional development. Staff retention grew to 90 percent. She tripled parent participation with an incentive program, and engaged and motivated the board to help build financial support from individual donors, corporations, community organizations and churches. In addition, she implemented a curriculum to address the needs of high-risk children and insisted that every staff member receive training. Most of all, she listened – particularly to her parents and to children, recognizing the difficulty of their circumstances and wanting them to feel at home.
Under her leadership, and as a result of her commitment to ensuring that the children at Bright Beginnings receive the highest quality education and services, the organization has flourished. It currently serves approximately 90 children (although research suggests that 700 homeless children under the age of five in the District need the services that Bright Beginnings provides). "The man on the street is not the face of the homeless now," says Gaines. "It's families and teenagers."
Doris Dupuy, Center Administrator, sees the life changes that Bright Beginnings brings not only to the children, but often to parents, who are struggling to create some stability in the lives of their children. "One parent, who has three children a year and a half apart in our program, became a parent aid in our Parent Aid program, working in a classroom while we helped her through the teacher credentialing process. Now she's an assistant teacher in another school, with a stable job, while her children are in our care."
This year, Bright Beginnings launched a new evening care program for children whose parents work at night. The next phase of expansion will be the addition of at least one new site, most likely in Ward 7 or 8. Despite the challenges, Dr. Gaines says it's the parents and children who keep her devoted to her work. "Our parents love their children and bring them to us so that they can be safe and cared for," she says. "For them to trust us with their children, when there has been little in their lives they've been able to trust in, is a privilege."