Notes from the Field
If you were to visit El Salvador, you would find a country full of lush vegetation, stunning beaches, and a vibrant culture. Locals are friendly, warm, and welcoming towards visitors. However, El Salvador experiences many difficulties as a nation. The country faces issues when it comes to caring for vulnerable children amidst an environment riddled with gang violence and influence. Lack of relationship-centered care for the most vulnerable children continues to be a challenge.
This month, Whole Child International welcomed our Board of Directors and key donors to see our work in San Salvador. Our trip focused on providing context about the country and explaining the plight of children growing up in residential centers and those who spend their days in early childhood care centers. As the Board of Directors and donors visited each site, they received a small glimpse into what life is like for children growing up in El Salvador without loving families to surround them.
Prior to visiting the centers, our donors and board members were reminded of typical practices that unknowingly contribute to stifling childhood development. Care centers in El Salvador, like many other countries, emphasize efficiency and cleanliness to maintain order, rather than prioritizing emotional needs. This approach detracts from establishing a more family-like, relationship-centered setting that occurs when children of different ages are grouped together with supervision from a consistent and dedicated caregiver. Visiting several different childcare centers allowed our board and donors to understand these problems and see the benefit of Whole Child’s work firsthand.
In addition to site visits, this trip presented many opportunities to continue building relationships with key government partners, USAID officials, ISNA, and the US Ambassador to El Salvador, Jean Manes. Our visitors also had the chance to visit the beautiful area of Suchitoto, a historical town with stunning mountain views, and enjoyed the lovely hospitality at Hotel Los Almendros de San Lorenzo.
We are so grateful to have such wonderful board members and donors who actively engage with our work! Special “Thank You” to each of them for participating in this experience and offering their input and expertise on how we can continue to strengthen our approach within El Salvador.
On July 24, 2018, our Founder & CEO Karen Spencer received an Honorary Fellowship from the University of Northampton. This honor acknowledged her impact as a social entrepreneur for her work and dedication at Whole Child International by improving care for vulnerable children around the world.
“To be recognized in this way is a wonderful and humbling personal honor, but I’m also proud that the work of everyone at Whole Child is being recognized in this way by such a fine academic institution as the University of Northampton,” said Karen of this special opportunity.
In 2013, Ashoka chose the University of Northampton to be a “Changemaker Campus” focused on encouraging students to tackle social problems throughout their undergraduate experience, and as part of their growing careers. Karen’s position as an Ashoka Fellow made her especially proud to speak to this graduating class of young changemakers.
Dr. Eunice Lumsden, Head of Early Years at the University of Northampton, was quoted as saying: “Countess Spencer is a true ‘changemaker’ in every sense and a pioneer in her work with the world’s most vulnerable children. Her contribution to enriching the life of others is immense and her knowledge about the importance of a holistic approach to early childhood is outstanding.”
In her remarks addressing the faculty, staff, and 2018 graduating class, Karen thanked the university and shared encouragement with attendees. Karen advised the graduates to pursue their dreams, regardless of possible humble beginnings or any failures along the way. She offered challenging yet important advice by saying, “Embrace your own failures. Within my biggest failures was the knowledge and experience that led to my biggest successes.”
Please join us in congratulating Karen on this special achievement! We are so proud of her.
Celebrating the mother figures in our lives begins with a simple acknowledgement of their value and impact. As part of our ongoing effort to shine a light on the work of surrogate mothers and caregivers of all kinds, Whole Child International created a social media campaign for Mother’s Day 2018 called #LikeaMothertoMe.
The campaign encouraged people to share their favorite stories and memories honoring mother figures and the impact that these special individuals have made on their lives.
Our Founder & CEO Karen Spencer shared her inspiration behind the campaign by saying, “I founded Whole Child from a desire to ensure that the most vulnerable of children could experience love and connection. Whole Child is about the centrality of a mother figure in a child’s life. A relational bond for a child is not a luxury, it is the most basic of human needs.’’
Campaign participants shared photos, videos, and stories of their important mother figures. Many individuals, from the United States to the United Kingdom, participated in the #LikeaMothertoMe campaign, including special friends of Whole Child, Reverend Richard Coles and Elsa Chahin of Pikler USA. Thank you to all who shared!
A few notable posts. . .
“The women who meant the most to me … were not necessarily the ones who had achieved the greatest financial or professional success. The ones who had the most impact on me were those who cared the most, who took time out of their day to chat with me, to listen and talk and laugh with me.” – WCI COO, Pete La Raus
“Being #LikeaMothertoMe can be to your neighbor’s kids, to your best friend’s babies, to the foster kiddos in your church, community, your circle. My momma was always a momma to my friends. To this day, she still feels like home to them!” – Liza Rademacher
A crucial part of our work at Whole Child is celebrating and uplifting the many caregivers who serve as mother figures to the children in their care. Cultivating this type of impactful relationship between a child and a mother figure (or caregiver) is the mission of our organization. Today and every day, we honor those who fill the role of #LikeaMothertoMe.
On July 28, 2018, Whole Child International Senior Policy Director, Gary Newton, gave the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame’s Eck Institute for Global Health. Graduates received a Master of Science in Global Health. Gary and Dr. Bernard Nahlen, the Institute director, are long time colleagues in the field of international development.
Gary used his speech to shift the focus of graduates who have been mainly immersed in the world of preventable childhood disease to the world of preventable childhood adversity. He used two recent high profile cases of childhood adversity – children lost in a cave in Thailand and children separated from parents at the US-Mexico border – as an entrée into the world of vulnerable children globally. To underscore the point that adversity in early childhood should be a core global health concern, Gary talked about the serious long-term health consequences of toxic stress that children can suffer from separation, neglect and abuse. While we are the cause of toxic stress, Gary said, we are also the prevention and cure — stable, nurturing, responsive caregiving is the antidote to toxic stress. He mentioned that this is what Whole Child International specializes in, attachment-based, relationship-centered care.
Gary concluded by saying:
“For you all on the cusp of great careers in global health, I hope and pray that you use your leadership, wisdom and wherewithal to:
• Respond to the humanitarian emergency of children suffering from preventable disease and preventable violence, abuse and neglect.
• Protect vulnerable children from collateral damage caused by bad public policy, political indifference and adults behaving badly.
• And, enable vulnerable children to enjoy the health, rights and opportunities they are due — and which they require — to thrive and contribute a full measure of talent to family, community and nation.”
Congratulations to graduates for their hard work and accomplishments, and to Gary for delivering such an important and timely commencement address.
Whole Child International announces the receipt of a $4.9 million award from USAID to support its program in El Salvador.
The program, known as the Protection & Quality of Care for Children Project, is a five-year collaboration with the government of El Salvador and other partners that will bring high quality, relationship-centered care to an estimated 20,000 children in 252 childcare centers and 54 residential care centers. Efforts will focus on building government ministries’ capacity to manage child protection systems and promote child development through socio-emotional development of vulnerable children. By creating caregiving environments that enable stable, nurturing relationships for every child, regardless of the setting in which they are raised, developmental outcomes will improve.
Whole Child will be responsible for contributing $2.5 million in matching funds over this five-year funding period. The total of $7.4 million will allow full program implementation across the nation and its system of care. With its focus on quality caregiving, the program will train and support multiple levels of stakeholders, from leaders of Salvadoran government ministries, to administrators of centers, to caregiver supervisors, to the caregivers who work with the children every day. Another focus of this project will be assessing deinstitutionalization efforts to date and supporting government efforts to pilot innovative approaches to increase the number of children in family-based care.
Whole Child’s partners at Duke University will evaluate the Protection & Quality of Care for Children Project.
Today the University of Northampton awarded our Founder & CEO Karen Spencer an honorary fellowship at this year’s summer graduation ceremony.
Last week, members of the executive team of Whole Child in Los Angeles visited our El Salvador mission. Karen Spencer, founder and CEO, Pete La Raus, COO, and Nadia Ammar, Director of Individual Giving, worked with the El Salvador team and our partners on program implementation and our plans for moving forward.
The delegation visited two childcare centers and three residential child protection centers which are all part of the child protection system overseen by ISNA, the Salvadoran government’s child protection ministry. ISNA’s Executive Director, Elda Tobar Ortiza, accompanied them during the visit along with the deputy directors for the protection and promotion of children’s rights. The team visited Centro de Desarrollo Integral San Rafael (San Rafael Center for Integrated Development); Centro de Bienestar Infantil Santa Anita (Santa Anita Center for infant well-being); Hogar del Niño San Vicente de Paul (Children’s Home San Vicente), Hogar de la Niña Santa Luisa de Marillac (Santa Luisa de Marillac girl’s home); and Hogar Dr. Fray de Jesús Moraga (Dr. Fray de Jesus Moraga home).
During the visit, the representatives from ISNA and Whole Child discussed at length how to continue to improve early childhood care and development (ECCD) as well as how to take the next steps together, affirming the need to continue to improve quality of care and that the care is relevant and appropriate in a variety of different environments and contexts. The Whole Child team also held multiple internal meetings to ensure that we continue to innovate and stay on the cutting edge of childcare and best practices, both in El Salvador and beyond.
Earlier this month, Karen had the honor and privilege of being invited to Buckingham Palace by Her Majesty The Queen to attend the Commonwealth Diaspora Reception. This reception recognized individuals who have made a positive contribution to business, community, and culture. Karen was recognized for her commitment and influence in working to improve the quality of childcare for the world’s most vulnerable children.
This 65-year tradition is an important and symbolic event that unifies influential individuals from nearly every geographical region, religion and culture. The Commonwealth organization embraces diversity among its “52 countries and almost 2.5 billion people.”
Throughout the evening, Karen met dignitaries and leaders from around the world, and was honored to share a moment with the Queen.
January 16th marked the 26th anniversary of the Chapultepec Peace Accords, which ended a 12-year civil war in El Salvador. Though the Peace Accords are unique to El Salvador, the scope and implications of the agreement to create lasting peace start with investing in our children’s future.
Nearly 26 years after the signing of the peace accords, El Salvador is one of many countries that still faces profound challenges related to violence and child development. Studies have shown that programs that aim to teach youth how to develop the life skills needed to succeed in the labor market keep children off the streets and, as a result, makes them less susceptible to the influence of gangs. Our intervention in child care facilities strives to combat this ongoing issue by providing vulnerable children with the internal resources needed to become educated, productive members of society.
Whole Child’s support of the Salvadoran government’s limited-resource early education (ECE) centers is just one of our major investments in children’s future, but there is still considerable work to be done. Studies show that high-quality ECE is not only important for children’s healthy development, but it has significant economic and social payoffs. Together, by investing in early childhood education, we can build a more peaceful and prosperous future.
A primary goal of Whole Child’s new five-year strategy is to replicate our relationship-centered care model in new care settings and new countries. To help do this, we have partnered with a UK-based group called Shift. Shift is an award-winning not-for-profit social design agency that supports the creation and improvement of products and services that have positive social impact. For the past several months our El Salvador team has been working with a team from Shift to develop tools and a framework to scale-up our approach to care-giving, from impacting policy on a governmental scale to working directly with caregivers.
The support from Shift is one of our initiatives to grow carefully and systematically as an organization. As we expand, Shift will offer its guidance on how we can support our global partners even more effectively. We relish taking this deep dive into the details of our program processes and working with this award-winning charity to continue to improve the quality of care for vulnerable children.
We all know that while toys are nice, the gifts that really matter are the ones that cannot be bought. From the time a child is born to kindergarten, his or her brain develops at a faster rate than any other stage in life, which is why it’s crucial for children to be exposed to cognitively and emotionally nourishing experiences in their earliest years of life.
This holiday season, the team at Whole Child encourages you, whether you’re a parent, caregiver, aunt, uncle or special friend, to spend an uninterrupted afternoon with a child in your life. Activities such as playing at the park together or reading them their favorite book are building blocks to empathy and philanthropy, which are far more meaningful gifts than the latest gizmo.
We hope you share the valuable gift of spending quality time and giving special attention to the children in your life this holiday season!
This week, People magazine featured our Founder and CEO, Karen Spencer, as one of its 25 Women Changing the World in 2017. Karen has been a champion for relationship-based care of vulnerable children since founding Whole Child more than 13 years ago. We’re grateful to People for bringing attention to this important issue to their more than 46 million readers worldwide!
Dr. Hy Huynh, our colleague from Duke University’s Global Health Institute, visited the El Salvador team in the beginning of November to provide support for our National Evaluation of Quality of Childcare (ENCCI) post-evaluation effort. Dr. Huynh reviewed our protocols in the office and got to see firsthand our “logistics machine” through office monitoring and by heading out to the field for two very long days. The days begin before dawn, so that the team can arrive at the evaluation site as parents drop off their children. We take advantage of this moment to get any consent for research that we need, as well as to interview the parents on their own well-being, their family’s make-up and well-being, and their perspective on their children’s well being. After speaking with the parents, we move on to evaluations of the children, quality evaluations of the center, and interviews of the caregivers in the childcare centers to determine their well-being.
Dr. Huynh was able to lend his expertise to different challenges as part of this process as well as help us to document some of our work. Documentation is a special challenge for us as we are extremely careful to respect the children’s rights by protecting their identities and their stories. We very much appreciate his perspective and his efforts across this process.
Last Saturday at its “Where Pikler Meets Neuroscience” conference, Pikler/Lóczy USA, pioneers in relationship-based childcare, honored Whole Child founder Karen Spencer with its USA Founders Award.
This is an especially meaningful award for Karen and all of us, because the childcare philosophies of Emmi Pikler and the Pikler Institute in Budapest, Hungary, played a big part in the original founding of Whole Child in 2004. Those who have seen Karen give her full presentation have seen a video from Pikler that originally inspired her quest to bring relationship-based care to all children — a beautiful moment between a caregiver and a child, taking advantage of an everyday moment to deepen their relationship and meet the child’s developmental needs for attention, trust, and love.
Congratulations to Karen, and thanks to Pikler/Lóczy USA for its partnership, support, and inspiration.
Whole Child International hosted our inaugural Gala last Thursday night in Los Angeles at the Beverly Wilshire hotel. It was an elegant, fitting tribute to our achievements thus far, and a great chance for our team to get together with donors, friends, and other supporters both old and new. It also raised awareness and much needed funding for our program, and for that we thank all the attendees who bought seats and tables and “raised their paddle” during the auction — as well as so many who gave in honor of the event.
For more information, including photos of our hosts Earl and Countess Spencer, Master of Ceremonies Sir Ken Robinson, and musical guests Anthony Kiedis and Josh Klinghoffer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, please visit our dedicated web page about the gala, and don’t forget to like us on Facebook for the latest news.
Our research effort in El Salvador has three main focuses:
- What quality of care do children receive?
- How are children developing physically and holistically (cognitively, linguistically, physically, socio-emotionally)?
- How are the caregivers of vulnerable children doing, both in childcare centers and at home?
We gathered all of this information (and more!) as part of our National Evaluation of Quality of Childcare (ENCCI) baseline assessment with Duke University, the University of Central America, University of South Carolina, and the University of Pittsburgh.
We are currently gathering post-evaluation data. After weeks criss-crossing El Salvador, our evaluation teams have just finalized the quality assessments of the childcare centers.
We don’t have the results yet, and have much to do before the end of the year, but this is a big research milestone!
We’d all like to congratulate our Program Director, Meghan López, for winning the prestigious Global Achievement Award from her alma mater, Johns Hopkins. Meghan joined Whole Child International in 2011, and since then has been a driving force behind the development, implementation, and evaluation of our program. She’s led our teams in both Nicaragua and El Salvador, persisting through earthquakes, hurricanes, challenges, and growth. Meghan is also adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins, where she mentors Masters-level nurse practitioner students.
Felicitaciones, Meghan! We’re glad the rest of the world sees you as we do.
Please read more here about Meghan and her fellow awardees.
Now fully in the midst of post-evaluation of care centers, Whole Child El Salvador is a logistics machine! Every day from 5 a.m. when the first teams hit the road, to 6:30 a.m. when teams arrive at the first evaluation site of the day, to the evening between 5:00 to 7:00 pm when the teams roll back into the office, we track our personnel’s movements around the country by Whatsapp chat groups and GPS points. This system allows us to reroute the teams when care centers are closed or for security reasons, and keeps the office up-to-the-minute on progress in the field.
We have scheduling and planning spreadsheets to track where the teams are and will be; we have spreadsheets that track the teams’ progress in the various evaluation tools in the various sites; we have spreadsheets that determine what has been sent by the El Salvador team and received by our colleagues at Duke University, and more! Every week the Whole Child El Salvador evaluation team and the office at Duke Global Health Institute coordinate for the research coordination call. This call is a moment’s pause to make sure everything is on track and troubleshoot anywhere needed. It’s a busy moment in the El Salvador office — but the results will be important to guide our ongoing work in El Salvador and worldwide to improve quality of care for vulnerable children!
Whole Child International is pleased to announce that Gary Newton has joined our team as Senior Director for Policy. Gary will lead the development of a policy framework to guide our programmatic and geographic expansion.
Whole Child International occupies a niche within the international development community: we focus on the needs and plight of poor and vulnerable children stuck in institutions. While awaiting placement in families, children have the right to the best care possible within the well-known constraints of the institutional setting. Whole Child promotes changes in procedure and practice that improve the quality of caregiving, strengthen attachments, and enrich the emotional environment for children. Whole Child does not promote the institutionalization of children. We help prepare children who live in institutions to live within families.
Whole Child has implemented programs in residential and early childcare settings in Central America – a challenging care environment due to limited resources, widespread displacement, pervasive poverty, and some of the world’s highest rates of violence.
Whole Child is on the cusp of modest growth. Over the next five years, Whole Child will build on thirteen years’ experience working with governments and within the residential care sector to support transitions from institutional to family-based care. We will work on transitions with new partners in Africa and Asia and current partners in Central America. As we expand into family-based care, we will continue our focus on sustainability, increasing government capacity, and leveraging existing alternative care resources to create change.
Gary will consult widely with colleagues in the sector to ensure our policies and programs complement those of our partners and contribute to the global goal of ensuring that as many children as possible are cared for in a family, whether it be their own or an alternative.
Gary served as a Foreign Service Officer with USAID for 25 years, including 16 years in Africa. His positions included USAID Director in Namibia and U.S. Government Special Advisor for Orphans and Vulnerable Children. He teaches a course on vulnerable children at Georgetown University at the School of Foreign Service in the Global Human Development Program, and serves on the board of three organizations that focus on child welfare and protection and public health.
Working for sustainability is hard. Many times we would love to go into a childcare center and fix everything all at once, but it’s essential to go slowly with our partners and make sure they know the why and the how of the practices and principles that we recommend.
Some days, this process seems like it will take a very long time. And then there are the days it all clicks. Today, in a visit to one of the childcare centers in the heart of San Salvador, on the edge of one of the largest markets and in an area with strong gang presence, it clicked! This childcare center unfortunately does not have any green area, and for security reasons the children must stay indoors nearly all day. Working with caregivers to make the childcare experience full of joy, discovery, and fun in these conditions has been a challenge, but the caregivers have worked tirelessly with our technical team, learning new strategies for positive reorientation and ways to communicate and interact with the kids.
After reaching a number of quality benchmarks, through the generosity of the Mawardi Foundation, we were able to introduce new toys and materials into this center. While the space for the older kids was instantly transformed, the space for the babies was harder to implement. The caregivers have been cautious about creating an environment where children under one year old could be on the floor, moving and playing, while the caregivers were elsewhere in the room. But today when we walked in for technical assistance we found a new kind of quiet filled with the sounds of children discovering, playing, and interacting. The caregivers were moving around doing necessary tasks, pausing constantly to marvel at their charges who could now set new challenges for themselves and achieve those successes.
Pictures from that visit are up on our office bulletin board in El Salvador as our inspiration this week!
From the beginning, Whole Child International has dedicated significant time, resources, and funding to doing research and evaluation of the work that we do. This has been essential to demonstrate results and impact, but it also guides our program development. For instance, if we find that some results are not as effective or as well sustained as we had hoped, through evaluation we can carefully analyze and pull apart the pieces of our program to determine where we need to grow further.
As part of our research in El Salvador, Dr. Tomas Matza, an anthropologist and ethnographer from the University of Pittsburgh, has been providing invaluable insight into the caregiver experience prior to, throughout, and after our work improving the quality of care in their centers. We work intensively with the caregivers, providing them training followed by on-site hands-on coaching and mentoring in applying what they have learned, so it’s invaluable to carefully understand what helps the caregivers — and therefore the lives of the children they care for.
Tomas first visited in June 2015, and he is back in-country working with the team of local ethnographers as part of the post-intervention assessment. He is also meeting with government officials to learn more about their experience in our university certificate program, and how this has changed their perspective and practice. We are looking forward to the new insights gained from this process.
Last week, Founder & CEO Karen Spencer and other U.S.-based staff joined our El Salvador team to visit all corners of El Salvador and assess the progress of the work we have been conducting in limited-resource childcare centers. The El Salvador team has done tremendous work in the care centers, and we’re all grateful for our dedicated partners in the centers and across the Salvadoran government as we move forward with our nationwide program.
One of the most visible changes to children’s lives in the care centers is the addition of toys, play structures, and other improvements to the space to encourage imaginative play and enhance caregiving. Since they were added last year, they’ve been a big part of the hands-on support we have provided caregivers. In turn, caregivers have been able to leverage them to engage with children, and empowered to find creative ways to support the development of each child in their care.
We can’t praise the caregivers, their supervisors, and technical staff members enough for their energy, their care, and their resourcefulness as we all work together to improve the care centers as part of our larger nationwide program.
Whole Child has been thinking about how to evaluate the quality of care that children receive since the founding of the organization. This careful analysis led to a five-year process of literature review, development, testing, and expert review to develop our childcare setting quality measurement tool, WCI-QCUALS — first as a tool on paper and then developed as a smartphone application with Duke University. This month our program director, Meghan Lopez, traveled for 10 days to China to work with our colleagues at One Sky for Children, who share a similar perspective on the importance of quality care and relationship centered care.
She provided a training session focused on an overview of quality in childcare through the lens of existing evidence, specifically looking at limited-resource settings. Meghan shared WCI-QCUALS and worked with One Sky staff to pilot its use.
One of our goals in this partnership is to learn as partners at One Sky use WCI-QCUALS to evaluate their orphanages, childcare programs, and foster care services, in China. From the thoughtful questions during training and the on-site practice assessments, it was exciting to share experiences with our talented colleagues there and to support the important work they do for vulnerable children.
Whole Child’s El Salvador team graduated its first group of 54 caregivers of Salvadoran orphanages and childcare centers on November 18. The caregivers completed eight months of arduous effort and learning in our first monthly workshops on “Improving Practices for Childcare in Groups,” which is the fourth stage in our process which aims to improve the quality of childcare across the country. Whole Child is joined in this effort by the Salvadoran government’s Institute for Children and Adolescents (ISNA), supported by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Korean Poverty Reduction Found (KPR). The workshop was a collaboration of experts in integral child development from ISNA, government supervisors, as well as directors and caregivers from nine centers dedicated to childcare in El Salvador.
The workshops covered multiple topics around care and well-being of children, including communication with children, establishing routines in care, establishing a bond with children through everyday activities, the creation of safe and welcoming spaces, observation and child development support.
Each session included reflection and discussions regarding practices and participant experiences. After each session, the Whole Child team provided the caregivers in each center with hands-on support and coaching. We want to thank all 54 caregivers who participated in and learned through these workshops; honoring the commitment, effort, and willpower to make a difference in the life of these children.
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