There’s no manual to parenthood, but there is help. Early Childhood Connections is a nonprofit based in Rapid City helping thirteen western South Dakota counties improve early childhood educational efforts within their communities, large and small.

From their beginning in 1995, the team has been helping parents, professionals, and community members alike when it comes to early childhood development. A small but mighty group of eight people cover an array of specialties, all focusing on one overall mission: the future and well-being of young children ages 0-12 years old. All information the organization shares is based on research and evidence by reputable sources, including the Pyramid Model developed through Vanderbilt University, and more.

The organization advocates for ongoing communication with families regarding their child’s education, developmental progress, and pertinent program information, to help bridge the gap between home and school, ensuring their child receives the best care possible and experiences a positive early childhood education.

“We recognize that parents are a child’s first and best teacher, which is why Early Childhood Connections strives to help childcare programs provide a welcoming and inclusive environment for all families that is culturally competent and reflects each child’s background,” said Family Support Specialist Sunni Toczek. 

Autumn Gregory, Executive Director

From organizing agendas to communicating with their Board of Directors and Advisory Board, Autumn is the life behind giving parents hope. Whether you are new to the area and looking for childcare, or needing to solve problems as a public, private, or home educator, Autumn is your first contact in the door with the answers to give you direction.

She has been with Early Childhood Connections for the past 20 years and looks at each day as a new way to make an impact on a family’s life.

We are always able to do something new each day and get to see positive results every day.

Autumn Gregory

Janessa Bixel, Professional Development Specialist

With her roots in Early Childhood Education, Janessa has always had a love of teaching. She started part-time at Early Childhood Connections in 2016 and took the opportunity to join the team full-time in June of 2017.

As the Professional Development Specialist, Janessa is accustomed to wearing an array of hats. One of her main responsibilities is acting as the Region 1 CDA (Child Development Associate) Program Coordinator. She travels to 13 counties around western South Dakota and works with teachers and providers to reach success in the required program. Another hat she wears is technical assistance and enrichment training. From walking through physical spaces and offering research-based suggestions on layout, materials, and safety for different age groups to sharing new ideas for early education lesson plans, Janessa offers a wealth of knowledge to her students.

“I had a loopy road as a teacher and military spouse and my passion is deeply rooted in early childhood education. Now, I get to share that in a bigger picture working with educators and providers.”

My career chose me.

Janessa Bixel

Joe Doyle, IT Director

Joining the team five years ago, Joe finds a mission behind the numbers, collecting and reviewing data to help the ECC staff better serve those taking Early Childhood Connection’s classes, workshops, and courses. He handles the grant writing and reporting and facilitates online learning sessions, occasionally making an appearance on their social media channels.

But there’s more than numbers that draws Joe to the work they are doing in western South Dakota, and that is hope.

“So often we hear from parents at the start of Starting Strong that they just don’t want their child to drop out of school,” said Joe. “But after two years of their child attending preschool, the conversation shifts and they can see their children going to college, becoming doctors, lawyers, and so much more.”

They have a new outlook of hope in their own efforts, and their child’s.

Joe Doyle

Sunni Toczek, Family Support Specialist

With her background in social work, Sunni promotes family engagement and involvement in region child care centers through coaching, training, and collaborating with community partners. Her primary role is within the Starting Strong program where she recruits families and assists them in finding the preschool program that best fits their unique needs. She communicates with programs and parents about solving barriers for preschool attendance. Sunni also coordinates the Bright Start Responsive Parenting classes in the area—enhancing skills and providing tools to parents of children age 0-3.

“Sometimes people don’t know how or are unable to advocate for themselves and need someone to help advocate for them to get them the help they need. The biggest source of satisfaction for me in both my personal and professional lives is being that advocate.”

I do what I do because people need people.

Sunni Toczek

Andrea Neff, Education Support Specialist

While families are at the core of Early Childhood Connections, professionals and childcare providers are the other pieces of the pie that impact the future of young ones. Andrea came to Early Childhood Connections in December of 2018 and brings an immense amount of knowledge to complement her background in childhood development.

As a former teacher and director, Andrea coaches others to make their classrooms and facilities the best they can be for the children they are caring for. 

Being a teacher I would impact 17 children and families that I had daily contact with. Now that I am working with many teachers and directors directly, the positive effects are so much more tremendous.

Andrea Neff

Carole Foster, Social Emotional Specialist

Social Emotional Learning lays a foundation for children in their early years of life to acquire skills such as confidence, resilience, and self-awareness. For the past year, Carole has been teaching parents and caregivers about this special type of learning that is fundamentally important in the growth of children.“At the heart of it, Social Emotional Learning  provides preventative measures,” explained Carole.

“When I have an opportunity to coach a parent, caregiver or preschool teacher on how to prevent challenging behavior, we start to get ahead of the curve.”

At the heart of it, Social Emotional Learning  provides preventative measures.

Carole Foster

Learn more about Early Childhood Connections by visiting their website or Facebook page.

WORDS: JENNA CARDA
IMAGES: JESSE BROWN NELSON