Amy O'Leary and Ellis
Screenshot: Ellis Early Learning’s LinkedIn page


Behind every good award, there’s a good story about people working for change.

This story is about early childhood programs, Amy O’Leary, an award, and all the work that is being done to revolutionize the experiences very young children have in Massachusetts.

We’ll start with the award. 

Congratulations to Amy O’Leary, the executive director of Strategies for Children, for winning the 2021 Ellis Early Learning (S)Hero Award. She’ll be honored at the Ellis Annual Benefit Event, which will be held virtually on Thursday, October 28, 2021. 

“This is a brand new award that was inspired by Amy herself,” Lauren Cook, the CEO of Ellis Early Learning Center explains. “We wanted to shine a light on how much she does for the field, for adults and children alike.”

Patti Keenan, Ellis’ vice president of Advancement, Community and Equity, says, “I have been struck by how much the power of advocacy makes our work possible.” 

Keenan also praises Amy’s prodigious outreach and education work, especially during the pandemic when Amy and the Strategies team have been hosting “the 9:30 call,” a daily Zoom meeting for the field that features guest speakers, policy updates, and chances for early education professionals to connect with each other. 

And Cook adds, “Amy is so important to the sector, and so important to the history of Ellis.” 

That history begins in 1885, when Ida Eldredge – “inspired by the sermons of Dr. Rufus Ellis, pastor of First Church in Boston” – founded an afternoon club for boys. Over decades, Ellis grew, becoming a settlement house and then adding a camp, a program for adults, and an early childhood program. 

Amy O’Leary walked into Ellis’ history in 1993 when she became one of Ellis’ preschool teachers and eventually its preschool director. 

“As a preschool teacher, I was honored and humbled to work in partnership with families as their children were learning, growing and celebrating milestones along the way,” Amy says. “As a center director, I became interested in how policies were made and wondered how the early childhood system could better support children, families and educators.” 

In 2002, that curiosity led Amy to join Strategies for Children, where she became the director of Strategies’ Early Education for All Campaign. 

Meanwhile, Massachusetts was also making history, creating, in 2004, the country’s first Department of Early Education and Care. 

And last year, the pandemic made history by plunging the world into a public health battle against COVID-19 — and helping the United States see that its patchwork system of early education and care, which was vulnerable before the pandemic, was essential to rebuilding and getting through the pandemic. 

Now, Amy’s work and the efforts of other advocates are focused on building a better, stronger system of early education and care than the country has ever had, and this work starts with addressing inequities. Chief among these are the low salaries paid to early educators. Another challenge is inadequate public funding: government subsidies that don’t cover the true cost of care and that leave parents spending too much of their incomes on child care. 

In this fiscally tight environment, “It’s crucial to point out that Ellis has to raise its own funds,” Amy says.

“And that’s just to maintain the status quo,” Cook adds.

Last year, during the pandemic, Ellis raised $1.6 million. This year the organization’s goal is to raise $1.4 million. Other early education and care providers, such as the East Boston Social Centers, are in the same boat: to survive, they have to raise funds, which can leave programs competing against each other for donated dollars.

Despite tight financial straits, Ellis is expanding – adding a site in Jamaica Plain – and innovating. Ellis is one of five early childhood programs working with the nonprofit organization Neighborhood Villages to pilot and test the idea of sharing and centralizing administration and professional development programs. 

Ellis is also relying on its s/heroes, who will also be honored at Ellis’ annual event. In addition to Amy, the honorees are: 

• Marian L. Heard, a longtime champion of early education, the CEO of Oxen Hill Partners, and the former president and CEO of the United Way of Massachusetts Bay 

• Josh Kraft, president of Kraft Family Philanthropies, and 

• Neighborhood Villages 

The event will be moderated by Dana Chivvis, a journalist and a producer for This American Life and Serial. There will also be a “virtual living room” with three special guests: 

• Rahn Dorsey, an Eastern Bank of Boston Fellow and Boston’s former chief of education 

• Lauren Kennedy, co-president and chief strategy officer at Neighborhood Villages, and 

• Megan Madison, an early childhood trainer, scholar, and advocate, as well as the author of the children’s book “Our Skin: A First Conversation on Race” 

We’re excited to celebrate Amy and the other award recipients. But most of all, we’re excited to celebrate the resiliency of the early education field before and during the pandemic. And we applaud the dedication of everyone who is working hard to create high-quality early education and care programs for every young Massachusetts child.