What started as a small business incubator to support the refugee community in West Michigan has become a lifeline for childcare providers and parents during COVID-19.
Seeded with funds from an Office of Refugee Resettlement grant, Bethany Christian Services originally created the Hands Connected Network for in-home providers in 2016. This program was designed to combine the needs for economic self sufficiency and childcare for the local refugee community. Seeking a partner to take over the program in 2017, BCS found the Refugee Education Center, who was at the time in the midst of developing their own in-house childcare center.
The childcare facility, located at the Center's 2130 Enterprise St SE location in Kentwood, opened to the public in 2018, and employees entirely bilingual refugee teachers. This model was designed to create an affirming, representative learning program for young refugee children from a variety of backgrounds, including Congolese, Somali, and Burmese.
The in-home daycare network offers business and childcare training, financial support, and assistance in obtaining the certifications necessary for local refugees to forge their own independent childcare business in their homes. This "hub and spoke model," says Clark involves two separate entities — the Center and the Network — operating within the same sphere, each receiving developmental assessments and curriculum.
"It's a very unique program," says Matt Clark, the Center's advancement director. "They all have been seed funded to open their own independently owned business."
Hands Connected has grown over the past four years to include 19 active in-home childcare providers, with a few currently in training. Though all were initially forced to close due to the governor's first stay-at-home order, seven of the centers have since reopened to serve the needs of essential workers, and have been operating ever since.
Though the model provides economic self sufficiency, it also complicated some federal benefits issued in light of COVID-19. Because the childcare providers are not employees of the Refugee Education Center, they were not eligible to receive Paycheck Protection Program funds. However, 17 of the centers accept tuition payments through government subsidies, which continued payments as if they were still operating as usual.
For those for whom this was not the case, the Refugee Education Center offered their assistance. "We've been able to assist all of them in getting some type of supplemental income," says Clark.
Naw S., a graduate of the program, says, "The Hands Connected program has helped me with many things. They have helped my child care business grow more than I could have imagined! I was able to get my child license thanks to the help and support of Hands Connected. Without their help and support, I would not be where I am right now."
Another participant, Joseph M., says, "Hands Connected has been a way for my childcare business to connect with families from many other places. It has helped me to see how we are all different but also the same."
With their unique model, The Refugee Education Center provides an "Essential service for the refugee community here in grand rapids," according to Clark.
Though the majority of the centers are still closed due to COVID-19, the center's providers regularly check in with families, offering wellness check-ins, activities, and donations of diapers, wipes, and formula. And despite the closure,
"We were also on track to support five new home-based providers to get up and running in 2020," says Clark. "That's still the plan as of now."