Making It Work In Windham: An economy that works for all families

“When my husband and I contemplated having children in our thirties,…we factored many things into our decision. But, the one thing we didn’t really get was how much we were going to pay in child care. We never imagined that with two very good salaries, that I would actually pay out more than I bring in.” (Brandie Starr, Brattleboro)

Brandie’s family is not unique. In fact, according to the 2014 Windham Regional Profile,  two-thirds of all Windham County employees earn less than $19/hour. This makes it challenging to afford housing, food, transportation, child care and, not to mention, the resources and activities any family would want to have access to in order to enjoy life in Southern Vermont.

As the Regional Coordinator for Southeast Vermont Building Bright Futures, one of the many roles I play is to understand the issues facing children and families. As I dug into this role, I quickly saw far too many of our families struggling to make it. I also saw how hard families were trying to make it work.

Making It Work in Windham is an initiative created to ignite conversation about families in the workforce. In the short-term, we are working to increase the number of employers implementing family-friendly workplace policies and enhancing the ones employers are already using. However, the big vision is to ensure our regional economy works for all families. If families are able to succeed, our economy will succeed.

How it Started

It all started with a cup of coffee at the Brattleboro Food Co-Op in early 2015. Vicky Senni (then working with the Co-Op and now a Regional Field Manager with Let’s Grow Kids) and I talked about our respective conversations with employers and employees throughout the region. We reviewed the dizzying challenges facing families…low wages, health insurance, child care, housing, food, transportation and not to mention time! We also discussed the difficulty employers face understanding and balancing the complexities of their workforce, including scheduling, deadlines, producing quality products and services, expenses, and an uncertain economy. We also ruminated on the research: The Heckman Equation, quantifying the economic impact of early childhood investments and Ready Nation, articulating current and future workforce needs and skills that are acquired beginning at birth. From here, we sketched out the beginnings of a regional summit.

This initial conversation lead us to Sue Graff, a regional council member, at the United Way of Windham County. We then spent the next several months bringing together a diverse group of partners. As chance would have it, Impact Monadnock (based in Keene, NH whose mission is to “prepare children 0-5 for academic, career and life success”) hosted a forum in October 2015 focusing on the economic and workforce development impacts of investing in early childhood. The keynote speaker was Lisa Ventriss from the Vermont Business Roundtable. A number of us from Windham County attended and left absolutely inspired (more on the outcomes of that forum shortly).

We came home, dug in for the next year and collectively, we hosted the Making It Work In Windham: Early Childhood & Our Workforce summit on November 15, 2016.

“I love working — solving problems, thinking creatively, collaborating with other adults. I even like meetings. So until recently, I never thought I’d voluntarily quit my job.”
Katie Titterton, who describes in great detail her family’s experience wrestling with the financial realities of working and raising a family in VT.

The Summit

The Making It Work summit brought together business groups, employers, early childhood advocates, state agencies, and regional organizations. In addition to igniting a conversation linking family success with workforce and economic success, the summit explored the science, research and stories of early childhood development and how it translates into academic, career and life success.

Emcee Louis Josephson, PhD, CEO of the Brattleboro Retreat, spoke about how investments in early childhood can prevent the costly impact of substance abuse and trauma. Keynote speaker Steve Voigt, Executive Director of ReThink Health: UCRV, former CEO of King Arthur Flour and past Chair of VT Business Roundtable, reviewed longitudinal studies demonstrating the long-term impact of children attending high-quality early learning programs. Steve also discussed specific public policies and business-led efforts that support positive early childhood development. Finally, he shared research that connected access to high-quality early learning with the desired skills of our future workforce. Namely: Creativity, teamwork and critical thinking.

Let’s Grow Kids then screened a short video “Why Early Child Care Matters to Business,” which highlighted Vermont businesses’ efforts to implement and maintain family-supportive policies and practices.  

The morning continued with a dynamic employer panel discussion moderated by Windham County State Senator Becca Balint. Chroma Technology, Newground Creative, Whetstone Station and Mount Snow shared their successes, challenges, tools and opportunities for implementing family-friendly policies, supporting their workforce and running successful businesses. Senator Balint tied these individual employer experiences to the larger economic and workforce development context.

 After a small group activity where participants developed questions and next steps, Brandie Starr shared her family’s story on how they make it work and what is needed to improve our economy for all families.

Beyond the Summit

With enthusiasm high and people motivated to take the next steps towards our shared goals, the planning team quickly regrouped and reviewed next steps. We envisioned our efforts to follow the successful model implemented by Impact Monadnock. Shortly after their summit, a small group of employers met and formed the “Business Ambassadors for Early Childhood.” This employer-led group quickly identified opportunities to understand the issues by developing a survey and supporting other employers within the region to develop family-friendly workplace policies.  

We convened a follow-up working meeting on December 6. The discussion focused on upcoming legislative opportunities and building on existing successes. There grew great interest in further promoting the Vermont Department of Health’s (VDH) Breastfeeding Friendly Employer Project (Click Here and scroll down to “Become a breastfeeding friendly workplace”), as this provided an excellent framework to support family-friendly workplace policies. We also agreed to promote and support existing groups including United Way’s United@Work initiative and the Brattleboro Area Human Resources Network (BAHRN). Both groups held discussions in early 2017 around improved workplace policies, supporting all employees.

The start of the 2017 legislative session brought with it family leave legislation and several reports and initiatives supporting parents in the workforce. The Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FaMLI) program was introduced early during the legislative session. Additionally, two bodies of research came out in early 2017 supporting positive economic outcomes from early child investment. Professor Heckman and team released an updated report showing a “13% [Return on Investment] ROI for comprehensive, high-quality, birth-to-five-early education.” In February, the Vermont Business Roundtable released a Vermont-specific report showing “…that every additional dollar Vermont invests to expand high-quality early care and learning programs would yield a return of $3.08.” The Vermont Commission on Women launched the “Vermont Equal Pay Compact,” an initiative working to close the gender pay gap.

After much debate, the legislature passed and the Governor signed a state budget that included an additional $2.5 million to support the Child Care Financial Assistance Program (CCFAP), making it a little bit easier for families to afford child care.

In May, the United@Work initiative of the United Way of Windham County held its annual workforce training, “How To Manage an Evolving Workforce,” consisting of workshops and discussions supporting employers. The event was sponsored and hosted by The Hermitage Club and provided practical tools, benefit development and peer-learning for 25 area employers, including HR professionals, owners, managers and non-profits. Additionally, the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation convened initial discussions amongst employers around business-supported child care.  

While no formal collaborative (similar to Impact Monadnock) took shape after the Making It Work summit, the discussion was ignited. Our community began making connections between the health of our families and the health of our economy.

What’s Next:

As the Regional Coordinator and a papa of a two-year-old, I am committed to ensuring our economy works for all families. Composing this blog renewed my drive to collectively improve and increase the number of family-friendly workplace policies. Using a Collective Impact approach, we were able to collaboratively create, plan and implement a successful, inspiring event and subsequent follow-up efforts all while working towards a shared vision. Now, we need to re-commit to this approach and work across sectors in order to improve family-friendly workplace policies and, ultimately, improve our economy for all families.

As we move into late summer and early fall, I plan to re-convene the summit planning team in order to identify opportunities for improved collaboration. We will continue to make connections and improve cross-sector relationships. We also hope to better connect with statewide organizations, initiatives and state agencies in order to “scale-up” the Making It Work message and efforts. Finally, we will continue to highlight our assets and existing models, such as the VDH Breastfeeding Friendly program, United@Work and BAHRN. Together, this will ensure all families in Windham County have meaningful, good paying work that supports thriving families. To learn more, for resources or to get connected to Making It Work, Click Here.

Oh, and don’t forget, August is National Breastfeeding Awareness month!

The Summit Planning Team:

Chad Simmons
Southeast Vermont Regional Coordinator
Building Bright Futures



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