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Giving Kids the Right Start

A former executive finds a fulfilling career advocating for young children

Mary Reed is a recognizable face in Boston. She's frequently found working the halls of the state legislature, trying to garner support for her passion: young children and their educators. Reed is the founder and president of the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children (BTWIC), a nonprofit organization that advocates for early childhood education. Reed, 71, answers these questions about her life calling.

Q. You left a successful career as a vice president at Goodwill Industries to take over your mother's childcare business. Why?

At the time my mother passed away, the center had been operating for close to 60 years. Our family felt obliged to the community we'd served for so long to continue this service. Initially, I ran the childcare center. But my daughter, Wanda, and my son, Ken, subsequently took that over while I've become more involved in research and advocacy work.

Q. How has the childcare center changed since your mom started it?

For one thing, the community has changed. We used to serve middle-class families, but those families have moved out. Now, a lot of low-income families depend on our centers.

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We currently have two infant and toddler centers, and we're now working on opening a third for that age group. We used to offer preschool but the city of Boston began offering that for free in public schools, so the need was diminished. We realized that the need in the community was for care for children ages 0-3.

Q. Why is early childhood education so important?

The early years set the stage for all of the learning a child will do throughout their life. Without a strong foundation, a child may fall behind when he enters grade school. And that pattern can continue: You end up with kids dropping out of high school and not going to college and ultimately ending up in another part of our system, such as prison, where you're paying the huge social costs for intervention. It's really important in the early years to be very productive for children.

Q. What do you see as the most important components of a good early childhood facility?

It's crucial for kids to learn in small classrooms where they can enjoy good social interactions. I think it is also important to have an age-appropriate curriculum where they can start to be engaged in learning. Of course, safety is paramount — and so is a talented staff that will love and nurture the kids in their care.

Next: What's your biggest challenge? >>

Q. Tell me about the work of the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children?

The goal of the initiative is to strengthen early education and care for children through research, policy development, communication and advocacy. We focus on the neediest families — those for whom poverty and other factors put their children in jeopardy of physical, social, cognitive and other developmental delays. If we can identify these issues early, we can make sure to deal with them during the formative early childhood years.

Q. The initiative also does research, right?

Our center has done quite a bit of research that has actually affected policy in our state. As a result of a 2006 study we did on the importance of continuity of care, we got the state to increase subsidies for early childhood education for needy families from six months to a year. We've also helped get information for families translated into different languages. And we recently did a study on how little early childhood educators earn — an average of $25,000 a year — and are now advocating for higher wages for them.

Q. What do you see as your biggest challenge?

Since the initiative was started, the biggest challenge has been keeping it going. Every morning, I wake up and wonder, "Am I going to have enough resources to continue this work? Will I be able to finish what I start?" That's not a unique challenge for a nonprofit. Policy, advocacy and research are tough to sell to people. But when people understand what we do, they're very happy to support it.

Q. What advice do you have for others who want to do advocacy work?

You have to be inspired by something, to get that fire in the belly, so you can step outside of yourself and do something different. It can begin with something you're doing at your church or something you're doing as a part-time volunteer, as long as it is something that inspires you to make a difference. Sometimes just getting mad at something, or feeling that there's an injustice being done and you'd like to see it changed can initiate a call to action.

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