For the Carole Robertson Center for Learning, this holiday season isn’t about turtledoves and partridges in pear trees. Instead, we’re ending 2023 by reflecting on by the 12 months of changemaking our staff, children, families, partners, and supporters were able to make—together.

Below is a roundup of 12 (plus a bonus entry!) ways we’ve made a difference for, by, and with the communities we serve:

1. Governor J.B. Pritzker Makes Smart Start Announcement at Center, Invites Grow Your Own Teacher to State of the State Address

“All the best research shows that focusing dollars on our youngest children is one of the most fiscally responsible investments that we can make,” Governor J.B. Pritzker said at the Center’s Little Village flagship site during a January visit announcing Smart Start Illinois, a landmark funding proposal to invest $300M in early childhood education and care funding. Teacher Aide and Grow Your Own apprentice Itanzia Dawson spoke at the announcement and would be invited to the Governor’s “State of the State” address in Springfield the following month alongside Chief Programs and Impact Officer Sonja Crum Knight. 

2. Out-of-School-Time Program wins Jill Bradley Practice Award for Quality, Innovation

In late March, the Center’s Out-of-School Time (OST) team received the Illinois Afterschool Network’s Jill Bradley Best Practice Program Award. This award recognizes one Illinois afterschool and youth development provider demonstrating programmatic excellence and innovation. “None of that inspiring work would be possible without the passionate, dedicated staff who make up the Carole Robertson Center’s OST team,” said OST Manager of Community Programs Minelle Amezquita while accepting the award on behalf of the Center.

3. Staff Mobilize Around Advocacy Efforts in Springfield and D.C.

Fundamental to our work is the belief that every child deserves grownups who advocate for them. Whether in Springfield to champion Smart Start Illinois during Early Childhood Advocacy Day or in Washington, D.C., to support vital protections to Out-of-School Time (OST) funding, the Carole Robertson Center’s staff and parent advocates use their voices to ensure all children have the support systems they need to flourish.

4. E3 Gala Brings Supporters Together to Educate, Enrich, and Empower

This year, we renamed our largest annual fundraising celebration the E3 Gala—an homage to our mission to educate, enrich, and empower children and families. Emcee and City Cast Chicago host Jacoby Cochran called the E3 Gala “a love letter to the children and families that make Chicago, Chicago.” The evening’s robust program consisted of dinner, a silent auction, a live auction, and remarks from a diverse slate of honorees and speakers united by their shared commitment to investing in young learners. Together, attendees and supporters raised $269,000 to strengthen and sustain our work. (Already looking forward to the next E3 Gala? Be sure to save the date: May 16, 2024.)

5. Out-of-School-Time Youth Compete in Destination Imagination Global Finals

In May, our Out-of-School-Time (OST) youth competed in this year’s Destination Imagination Global Finals! Destination Imagination is an experience that empowers kids from around the world to exercise their creativity through various STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) challenges. At the global competition in Kansas City, the Center’s contestants put their heads together to complete the High Stakes Service Learning Challenge, coming up with a project and skit addressing a community need. By participating in fun, interdisciplinary challenges like this, youth strengthen critical thinking skills they’ll use for the rest of their lives.

6. Albany Park Flagship Site Earns Full NAEYC Reaccreditation

The Carole Robertson Center’s Albany Park flagship site earned full accreditation through the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) in July. The recognition followed a rigorous, year-long process evaluating program quality in the following 10 areas: relationships with children, curriculum, teaching approaches, child assessment, nutrition and health, staff qualifications, relationship with children’s families, relationship with the community, physical environment, and program leadership and management.

7. Center Invests in Staff Development through Virtual Summer Speaker Series and SEED Conference

Children learn more effectively when the grownups around them are learning, too. In this spirit, all Carole Robertson Center staff engage in professional development throughout the year. In 2023, we hosted our first-ever Summer Speaker Series, “Advancing Social Justice in our Practice,” inviting early childhood experts to the digital podium to share their knowledge with our staff and fellow providers. We were also thrilled to host our annual SEED (Staff Education, Enrichment, and Development) Conference in August, bringing all 300 Center employees together to enjoy workshops, fellowship, and inspiring keynotes from author Erika L. Sánchez and speaker Chazz Lewis.

8. Pre-K Graduation: A Celebration of Kindergarten Readiness

Every year, children and families across all three of our flagship sites enjoy a joyful ceremony celebrating our young learners’ many accomplishments. As we watch our community’s kids embark on their journey to kindergarten, we’re reminded of the exciting transitions that lie ahead. The Carole Robertson Center stands united in our mission to prepare these young learners for school and beyond!

9. Legacy Week Commemorates 60th Anniversary of 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing

On September 15, 2023, the Carole Robertson Center for Learning commemorated the 60th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing—the abhorrent act of hate that claimed the lives of our namesake Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair. To observe this tragedy in the spirit of hope and healing, we hosted our annual Legacy Week, which this year consisted of a Commemoration ceremony, an essay contest, social justice-focused classroom activities, and a Peace March at all three of our flagship sites.

10. Governor J.B. Pritzker Announces New Early Childhood State Agency, Taps President & CEO Bela Moté to Co-Chair Transition Committee

When Governor J.B. Pritzker was deciding where to announce a new state agency dedicated to early childhood programs, he immediately thought of the Carole Robertson Center. The Governor, alongside several city and state leaders, announced the creation of this agency at our North Lawndale flagship site—and hand-picked President and CEO Bela Moté to chair the new agency’s transition and advisory committee. During the press conference announcing the new agency, Grow Your Own participant and Teacher Assistant Affoue Nguessan also shared her own personal story about the Center’s impact on her life, family, and career.

11. Center Leaders Receive Recognition for Championing Children, Families, and Workforce

Values-driven leadership anchors the Center in our mission to educate, enrich, and empower children and families. Senior Director of Community-Based Advocacy Julissa Cruz builds upon our organization’s legacy of empowerment through her selection for, and participation in, Erikson Institute’s Barbara Bowman Leadership Fellows Program—a cohort of early childhood leaders shaping equitable policy for Illinois’s young children and families. Chief Programs and Impact Officer Sonja Crum Knight champions our sector’s workforce in a video by the National Early Care and Education Workforce Center. President and CEO Bela Moté, Erikson Institute’s 2023 Advocacy Award winner, underscores the importance of systems change by affirming in her award acceptance that “Advocacy is embedded in everything we do.” Together, the Carole Robertson Center’s leadership embodies our mission by championing young learners every day

12. Strengthening the Sector: Bringing Practitioner Voices into Groundbreaking Research and Thought Leadership

In May, the National Academies of the Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report on Closing the Opportunity Gap for Young Children. President and CEO Bela Moté served as a co-author on the report, representing the early childhood education practitioner voice. To lift this research off the page and share it with the broader early learning community, the Carole Robertson Center hosted Pathways to Equity, a panel discussion bringing together experts in policy, research, and practice to envision a more equitable social safety net for our nation’s children.

BONUS: Holiday Gift-Giving Drive Spreads Cheer to Local Children and Families

We couldn’t end our year without highlighting our Holiday Gift-Giving Drive, an annual effort that transforms our flagship sites into extensions of the North Pole! This year, thanks to support from our community of donors, volunteers, and champions, we were able to distribute 1,556 holiday gifts to families from the 27 communities we serve

The Carole Robertson Center wishes you and your loved ones a peaceful, joyous holiday season—and we look forward to ringing in another 12 months of changemaking with you as 2024 begins!

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Since 1976, the Carole Robertson Center for Learning has been dedicated to educating, enriching, and empowering children and families through comprehensive child and family development programs.