Nonprofit Insider

Couch Foundation Hopes to Initiate Systemic Change

White River Junction — With the Upper Valley’s most vulnerable residents — children younger than five years old — losing access to a cornerstone of support, a local family’s philanthropic foundation is responding by shifting tactics.

For the last decade, the Couch Family Foundation (created by Hypertherm founder Dick Couch and his wife, Barbara Couch) has given grants to area groups that support the foundation’s mission of helping “children and families to learn and thrive so that they develop healthy, fulfilling lives.”

But there was a growing sense within the family that more good could be accomplished with the money it gives (an estimated $2 million this year), according to Brooke Couch Freeland, daughter of Dick and Barbara, who has managed the foundation since its inception.

“That has been sort of a feeling, maybe in the last year and a half,” Couch Freeland said. “We’ve been focusing on where we can best make inroads, on where we can make a difference.”

Couch Freeland said that, as her parents began watching their grandchildren develop, “there were a couple of ‘aha’ moments.”

They recognized what high-quality early education looked like, dropping their children off at preschool and seeing what a difference it made in a child’s confidence and security and openness to learning,” she said.

But many working families don’t have access to decent early education services, the lack of which the U.S. Department of Education has linked to all sorts of societal ills — incidences of teen pregnancy, high school dropouts, and criminal convictions all decrease with access to such services.

On Thursday, the Couch Family Foundation announced that it was realigning its giving practices, and will seek to address the well-being of children holistically, in three broad areas: Early education, health care and child and family services.

The overall amount of money that the foundation spends to support Upper Valley children will not change, according to Michael Bennett, a program officer for the foundation, but the rationale will shift.

“Rather than funding individual organizations, which I think we will continue to do, we are looking to address some of these issues on a broader systematic level,” Bennett said.

As an example, Bennett pointed to the early education piece.

There are about 7,300 children aged 5 or younger in the Upper Valley whose parents are employed full-time, but only 5,000 slots available in licensed child care centers, according to research by the Carsey School at the University of New Hampshire that was commissioned by the foundation.

In many cases, the lack of available child care is an unwanted side effect of the region’s low unemployment rate, said Sharon Miller-Dombrowski, a trustee with the Upper Valley Child Care Association, a Couch Family Foundation grantee which represents 60 child care programs throughout the region.

“Unemployment is so low that we’re all working extra hours to make ends meet and get the classrooms covered,” Miller-Dombrowski said. “For the first time, we’re putting parents on waitlists because we don’t have the teaching staff.”

Miller-Dombrowski also serves as executive director at the Green Mountain Children’s Center in White River Junction.

The center has a goal of 55 staff, mostly certified teachers.

But the workforce has shrunk to 50, which means the center is teaching about 25 fewer kids than it is licensed to teach.

“The state is saying you need a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and I have individuals who want their bachelor’s but there’s no money and they can’t do it independently,” Miller Dombrowski said. “The wages are too low in our field to support them.”

Couch Freeland said that the lack of child care has been a hindrance to the area’s employers, who find it more difficult to maintain a workforce because prospective employees can’t access a day care center that meets their family’s needs.

The UNH study shows that only one in four surveyed employees were able to enroll their children in their first choice for child care right away, while roughly half faced wait lists, often of three months or more.

The cost of child care is also an issue, with the study finding that the average cost for child care for an infant is $10,500, or 16 percent of the median household income.

“We want to address things like this in a more meaningful way,” Bennett said. He said that it could conceivably lead to the foundation providing certain services directly, or helping to build the local capacity in other ways.

“How it’s going to play out over the next couple years we don’t know for certain,” he said. “We are beginning with some fact-finding. Gather the right data. Talk to the right people. Bring organizations that are currently serving these families together to brainstorm. Hopefully that will generate more ideas to get the initiative started.”

So far, in addition to commissioning the Upper Valley-specific research from UNH (the report will be published in early September), the group has announced two new hires to lead the effort.

One, Sara Kobylenski, is well-known to Upper Valley residents as the executive director of the Upper Valley Haven, which announced earlier this year that Kobylenski planned to leave the role.

“We had a good relationship with Sara as a grantee,” Couch Freeland said. “We had a great rapport with her so when we heard she was transitioning, we engaged her. It was a great fit.”

Kobylenski is expected to begin sometime this fall, to allow the Haven time to transition to a new leader.

The other new hire at the foundation, Amy Brooks, is the former director of Brooks’ Colebrook Country Day School in Colebrook, N.H.

“She has that vital classroom experience,” Couch Freeland said of Brooks, who will work directly with early childhood education professionals.

The foundation will continue to support children on both sides of the Connecticut River.

“Vermont has received federal preschool expansion grant dollars,” Bennett said. “They’re getting a lot of federal funding and higher levels of state funding to support system building. We will work on both sides but we understand New Hampshire has further to go and will need some more support for things that are not necessarily needed in Vermont.”

Posted on: August 23, 2018
Topics: Something New

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