Interview by Sarah Shumick
For Gina Ginn, CEO of Columbus Early Learning Centers, when the status quo isn’t cutting the mustard anymore, it’s time to think progressively and try something new. Now in their 132nd year, CELC provides childcare solutions for low/no income families in a “two-generational approach” to end the poverty cycle. Parents of CELC students are able to attend school or work, while children attending CELC graduate ready to take on kindergarten. Gina finds inspiration in finding new and innovative ways to help the families of CELC succeed.
What is the history and mission of Columbus Early Learning Centers? On January 23, 1887, Columbus Early Learning Centers welcomed their very first students. After months of planning by dedicated members of the Columbus community, a one room nursery was established to serve low income families at the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union at 65 South Fourth Street. A day nursery allowed mothers to work and older siblings to attend school, while their children and younger siblings spent the day in a safe and stable environment. At the end of the first year, the daily average at our nursery was five children and tuition was a mere five cents per day.
In the 132 years since our creation, we have more than outgrown that first one room nursery on South Fourth Street. We currently operate four centers in the Linden and Near East neighborhoods of Columbus, and we are looking forward to expanding in the future. We use a play-based curriculum and positive discipline in our classrooms to meet the needs of our 300 students. Our student to teacher ratios exceeds state requirements, allowing our teachers to provide more attentive care and individualized instruction to prepare every child for kindergarten. We have a tradition of affordable access to high-quality early childhood education that has strengthened the lives of thousands of children, families, and the communities in which they live.
Our families are predominantly from the Near East Side and Linden neighborhoods (43203, 43205, 43206, 43207 and 43211 zip codes); 75% of whom live at or below 200% and 87% at or below 300% of poverty. Since nearly 75% of our families live at or below 200% of poverty, this creates a dilemma in which our parents must decide whether to pay childcare costs and get pushed further into poverty or stay at home with their children and eliminate the source of income that could help move their family out of poverty to self-sufficiency.
Our mission is doing what it takes to deliver the best early learning experiences and family support, so every child succeeds in school and in life. All of our centers are highly rated by the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services Step Up to Quality Program.
Tell us what’s innovative about your organization or how you are innovating in the nonprofit space: Being committed to the whole family and high quality care that is focused on the child is what makes us innovative each and every day. We place our mission at the center of all of our decisions. Not just big decisions but all of the decisions along the way to the larger goal. One continuous goal is to continue to have innovative programming and increase access to that innovative programming. Currently, CELC’s highly rated Pre-K Readiness and Early Care Program provides early learning experiences and Kindergarten readiness skills for young children, specifically those who may fall behind due to the effects of poverty and other risk factors. Annually, we provide programs and services to over 300 children and 500 parents per year, with approximately 77% African American, 20% Caucasian and 3% Hispanic.
By providing a full day of learning and care year-round (M-F from 7 AM to 6 PM), CELC provides a two-generational approach to reducing poverty for area families so that parents can work, and children can graduate from the program ready to enter kindergarten at a level of preparedness equal to that of their peers from higher socioeconomic statuses.
There is more than simple day-to-day “childcare” programming that needs to take place in a center in order to ensure that students are building a strong foundation for the rest of their lives – such as supplemental physical activity programming, speech and hearing screenings, and healthful food. We offer these services so that they are both geographically and financially accessible to our families by bringing the services into each of the centers.
How is your organization making an impact in Columbus? From the beginning, our founders believed that the only way that our community can succeed, is if we help provide services to those that are disadvantaged but are trying to provide for their family. By providing affordable childcare so low income/no income families can go to school or work to help break that cycle of poverty for their family, we are taking away one obstacle that could be a barrier to their future success.
What makes your organization thrive? Our staff and board are dedicated to providing the best that we can for our community’s children.
As a leader, how do you come up with innovative ideas, and what helps put those ideas into action? While participating in community conversations, I get inspiration from the families – both their successes and challenges and look for ways that they can be helped. Whether this is from me, my organization or someone else that I know through work or volunteering, I find myself constantly thinking – there has to be a way to fix this, there has to be a better way… For example, there are no stores, currently, in the 43203 zip code that will accept WIC. Families are finding themselves having to go 1.3 miles to get milk – many of whom do not own cars. Pushing kids in strollers and walking, taking one bus after already using the bus to get the kids to work, child care, …etc. So, I have started conversations on having CELC identified as a pilot “store” where on 1 or 2 determined days a month, families can come and get staple items needed for each of their children. This is a conversation that has been going on for over a year, but I know that it can be done and it SHOULD be done. I find it very frustrating when people say, well we’ve never done that before. Well, the old way isn’t working, so let’s try something new.
Give us a snapshot of your career path—what is your background, and what led you to work in the nonprofit sector? BS in Environmental Sciences and Biological Sciences, University of Cincinnati; MA in Higher Education and Student Affairs, The Ohio State University; PhD in Workforce Development and Education
My volunteer path with Theta Phi Alpha Fraternity, the Junior League of Columbus, Fire Fighters 4 Kids Toy Drive and Junior Achievement have always kept connected for my community in a way that inspires me to do good for those that are in need of support and compassion.
My career path that has brought me to CELC has a combination of nonprofit, educational institutions and for profit including – The Ohio State University, United Cerebral Palsy of Central Ohio, Hondros College, Prevent Blindness Ohio, Mettler-Toledo International and Summerfield Advertising.
What is the one thing you are most passionate about? Dog Rescue – Huskies
What inspires you? Seeing people struggling and knowing that there HAS to be a way to help them find their path to success.
How do you stay motivated? What drives you to take things to the next level? Getting things done, helping more families and being challenged with obstacles to hurdle.
Why do you think people should care about innovative nonprofits? There are thousands of nonprofits in central Ohio, all with different missions, clients and purpose. What I’ve learned is that the innovative nonprofits have longevity (with CELC celebrating its 132nd birthday); stay true to what is our core mission, build your team with individuals that will make both you and your organization better; create strategic partnerships; and also constantly be on the lookout for ways to support and grow your mission – based on the current available resources as well as potential forthcoming opportunities.
As a kid, what did you say you wanted to be when you grew up? Actually I wanted to be a Doctor that served in Congress. But numerous times was voted most likely to be a University President or the President of the United States. Since we are all still growing, we will see!!
What might others be surprised to know about you? I am an avid reader and gardener. My husband and I have a garden the size of a two car garage in our backyard that produced more fruits and vegetables than two people could eat this past year. So we share, with neighbors, friends and the families that we serve at CELC. I also love reading books about the Amish culture. I think the appeal is the slower and more simple pace of life.
How can others in the Columbus community get involved with your organization? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Involvement can include but is not limited to – working with children in the classroom, serving on our board of directors or committees, assisting with planning of our annual gala, administrative office work and manual labor projects such as cleaning, painting, gardening…etc.
If someone were to ask you what the “pulse” of Columbus is, what would you tell them? We are fortunate to have a thriving community encompassing the business, arts, human services and sporting worlds. With so many companies based in Columbus, we find ourselves constantly having an influx of professionals who come to our city and are excited but what’s available to them and are excited about helping their community.