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Securing Atlanta's Future Thought Leadership

The Atlanta Early Education Ambassadors — A Community that Serves Its Community

By GEEARS: Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students

One Saturday morning in November, GEEARS’ Pre-K Recruitment Specialist Dawan Barfield stood before a meeting room at the Dean Rusk YMCA Head Start Academy. With his characteristic warmth and ease, he welcomed tables full of volunteers, who smiled back at him over boxed breakfasts. 

“Let’s start with an icebreaker,” Dawan announced. “Say one thing that you possess that brings value to the Ambassador Program.” 

The 19 women in the group, whose official title is the Atlanta Early Education Ambassadors, didn’t have to be asked twice. Following Dawan’s suggestion to “popcorn” their responses, they began piping up from every corner of the room. 

Experience! 

Consistency!

Knowledge! 

Innovation!  

Stipends! (That one, which drew cheers and laughter, came from GEEARS’ office manager, Colette Simpson, who administers stipends to the ambassadors.) 

And then the popcorn found a theme: 

Love of learning. 

Love for children and families. 

And finally, simply, Love.

That’s what really brings these Atlantans together. Love is practically a requirement, because the Atlanta Early Education Ambassadors program is no drop-in-for-an-afternoon volunteer situation. Founded in 2018 by GEEARS in partnership with Atlanta Public Schools, as an innovative vehicle to help Atlanta’s families access Georgia’s Pre-K, the program is a significant (and joyful) commitment. 

The Ambassadors fan out across the City’s westside to educate parents and caregivers of young children about the importance of early education. They tell parents why Quality Rated child care, pre-school, and Pre-K are golden resources for their kids. Then they tell them how to find convenient programs, how to apply, and how to enroll. The ambassadors are also fonts of information about other essentials like immunizations, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and Childcare and Parent Services (CAPS).

“Interested individuals must complete an application and be selected for the program. Then, they must attend four training workshops to be considered an ambassador,” Dawan explained after the breakfast meeting, which was held to celebrate the conclusion of the latest cohort’s one-year term. “You learn not only from GEEARS, but also the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL), Atlanta Public Schools, and Quality Rated child care center directors. After that, you sign up for three- to four-hour canvassing shifts.” 

Those shifts hit, literally, close to home. The Atlanta Early Education Ambassadors aren’t travelling long distances to the program’s target areas of need—APS’s Washington, Douglass, Therrell, and Mays clusters. They live, work, shop, and socialize in these communities. When they advise caregivers at malls, supermarkets, apartment complexes, and community events, the ambassadors know their churches and their challenges. They know their neighborhoods. They feel like family. 

Ericka Smith, who is one of the program’s three lead ambassadors, believes that’s a fundamental reason for the Ambassadors’ success. 

“It’s community,” she said at the breakfast. “[The Ambassadors] have all kinds of people, all different demographics—people coming out of homelessness, people with no children, people with a lot of children, people that are teachers or retired educators, people that are just parents who are just so moved by the work that they want to be engaged.” 

Another program asset, according to Dr. Joy Bradley, Director of APS’s Office of Early Learning, “is the ambassadors’ sheer numbers. There are about 30 people in every cohort, and each new ambassador cohort serves for a one-year term. 

“We were in need of some information to go out to our families about attendance,” Bradley recalled. “We’d noticed that a lot of our students were taking some extra days and not necessarily sick days. Our Early Education Ambassadors spread the word to some of our schools that were of concern with attendance issues. Without the work of the Early Education Ambassadors, I don’t know what our office would do.”

Bradley also noted that the Ambassadors’ impact on children and their families extends beyond the preschool years. 

“When our students have a foundation of attending a preschool and getting those early literacy and early numeracy skills addressed early,” she said, “that helps our school district and also helps our department.”

As the Atlanta Early Education Ambassadors program heads into its fifth year, its popularity is well-established. This year’s cohort is already two thirds full. But applications are still open for new members with a passion for early education, family health and well-being, and community engagement. If you’re interested in joining this community, click here.

 

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