WLC Chair Debbie Hubbell reads with students at Conmigo Early Education Center each week. Photo by Duane Tinkey
WLC Chair Debbie Hubbell reads with students at Conmigo Early Education Center each week. Photo by Duane Tinkey

What started out as a group of 46 local women leaders who wanted to do some good in their community has turned into a network of 600 women who have donated millions of dollars to support early childhood education.

Over the past 10 years, United Way of Central Iowa’s Women’s Leadership Connection (WLC) has raised and donated $10 million specifically for early childhood centers and in-home day care providers in low-income areas, said Bergetta Beardsley, director of investor relations and the WLC at United Way.

The group began in 2002, when former United Way CEO Martha Willits and current education director Maureen Tiffany gathered a group of women to discuss starting a philanthropic effort, said Debbie Hubbell, WLC chairwoman and a founding member.

“We literally sat down at a table to brainstorm what different causes meant to each of us and what needs we thought needed to be fulfilled,” she said. They put the various ideas onto a board, “then we each got a dollar bill and put it on the cause we wanted our dollars to support. Early childhood education ended up with the most dollar bills.”

On average, students from lower-income neighborhoods enter school two to three years behind their peers from middle-income families, according to information from United Way. The gap only widens from there. “Kids are lost by the time they enter kindergarten if they don’t have the right start,” Hubbell said.

To combat this disparity, the WLC has given funding to 18 child care providers and 200 in-home day care providers in Central Iowa over the years.

Beardsley said the women also conduct an annual book drive – donating 20,000 books in 2011 alone – and this year they sponsored the Wonder of Words Festival Kids Zone.

“We’re trying to build on a system that aligns with the United Way’s overall goals, so we want to increase graduation rates, fix deficiencies and provide safe places for students,” she said.

The WLC has put funding toward teacher training and development as well as classroom resources and child care facility improvements. This is important, Hubbell said, because centers with better educated teachers can do more for children they teach. But it also allows the teachers to receive better wages.

WLC members do more than just donate their money. They donate their time.

They spend time talking with and lobbying legislators and government officials so that more attention is given to early childhood education, Hubbell said. Each year they head to the Iowa Capitol, host coffees and luncheons with legislators, mail out letters, make phone calls, and meet with members of the Iowa Department of Education and Gov. Terry Branstad’s staff.

The group also began a volunteer reader program, in which members spend one-on-one time reading and mentoring children, Hubbell said. The students involved are tested before and after the program to assess if they are ready for kindergarten.

“In a perfect world all kids would be able to read once they reach third grade, no matter where they come from,” Hubbell said. “But the power that women, as a group, have to make a difference is mind-boggling.”