Leea Cooley has been interested in working with children for a long time. As a child growing up in Indiana, she liked to play school. As a teenager living in Agawam, Mass., – where her family moved for her father’s career – she loved to babysit.
But it wasn’t until she was a newly divorced mother of two children talking to her divorce attorney that she thought about weaving her interest in children into a profession.
“My lawyer told me that she thought a good career for me would be family child care. She saw the way that I cared so much about children. So I pursued my license, and I got it. And my lawyer put her two children in my program. Along with my children, they were my first customers. And since then, I’ve been running my family child care business for 25 years right here in my house.”
It’s a career that has been full of joy, generosity, and hard work. And one that has led Cooley to join Strategies for Children’s Advocacy Network, so she can formalize the work that she has been doing for parents for decades.
“One of the main lessons I’ve learned,” Cooley says, “is that parents need help. They need advice. They need guidance. They’re working full time jobs and then they’re going home and caring for their families, and they don’t always have time to access the information that they’d like to have.
“Over the years, my biggest aha moment is I need to be that resource for families.”
For Cooley, being a resource means sharing what she knows and quickly learning what she doesn’t know and sharing that. She draws on her own knowledge and on connections she has with staff members in the Agawam public school system.
So Cooley is equipped to tell parents about the federal WIC program (a supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children), and she can tell them about where to go to get children screened for autism or attention deficit disorders.
Cooley also helps parents navigate state programs.
“I had a mom who was waiting for months for a voucher, but because she needed care right away, I lowered my rate as much as I could, and I reached out to the state to advocate for her, to ask where she was on the voucher list.”
When the pandemic hit, Cooley kept her child care program open, serving as an emergency provider for first responders and front line workers.
“It was scary, not knowing if the kids were going to get sick or if I was going to get sick and how I would handle that. But I decided that I needed to stay open for my community. I needed to be open so other people could go to work and not have to worry about how their children were being taken care of.”
“It’s always been that way with me, if parents need my help, I’m there. I can’t say, ‘no,’ and I honestly don’t want to, because I have a relationship with the children, and I’m building trust with the family.”
Cooley decided to join the Advocacy Network because she’d seen Amy O’Leary, Strategies’ executive director, on Zoom calls, and in O’Leary, Cooley recognized a kindred, action-oriented mindset.
What’s been striking about the network experience for Cooley is seeing how advocacy works behind the scenes: bringing groups of people together to discuss problems, devise plans, and put those plans into action.
One Advocacy Network topic that stood out for Cooley is cultural humility.
“It’s the process,” Cooley explains, “of continually learning and broadening your perspective about people’s lives, about where they come from, about their religion, or just about their everyday lives. You put yourself in their shoes and understand their perspective with empathy. And you find a safe space to ask people questions.
“I think the more we get to know about each other, the easier it is to coexist. And then we’re not afraid of things that might hold us back.”
One example is a young child in her program whose first language is Polish. His mother was concerned about his ability to use English, but Cooley knew that the child just needed time. “And now he’s teaching us Polish,” she says, pointing out how his cultural background is a strength. “Now, he has such high self esteem, and he’s so proud of himself.”
Cooley is going to use this experience in her work developing a professional learning certificate program about cultural humility for the Department of Early Education and Care’s StrongStart Online Professional Development System.
She also plans to work with her town, its school committee members, and local family child care providers to create a centralized information resource, possibly a website, for parents of young children.
“Members of our community need to know that their children’s education doesn’t just run from K to 12. It starts while children are with us in early education programs. We need to shine a light on family child care providers who work with children from birth to five when they are learning the fastest. If more parents have a better understanding of that, then we won’t be considered as just babysitters. There are qualifications that we have to have to get our state licenses.”
To do this work, Cooley networked with a local principal and kindergarten teachers to understand what young children would need to succeed in school. Then she built age-appropriate practices into her program.
“I have a curriculum in my program, and I do kindergarten assessments. I’m paying attention to what kids need to know long before they get to kindergarten.”
Cooley would like to organize a family child care educator committee to help eliminate educational gaps and build an educational bridge that stretches seamlessly from birth through high school.
Pushing for progress on policy is essential, Cooley says, but child care work can also be deeply personal. For years, Cooley has cared for a child with a medical condition, seeing the child and her family through surgery, and becoming a guardian for the child after her mother passed away. Cooley’s goal is to support this child and have other children treat her with respect despite her differences. These are compassionate skills that the children in her care can apply throughout their lives, she says, with everyone they meet.
“All of the children that I have in my program, you don’t see them picking on someone else because of their differences.”
The philosophy Cooley shares with children is simple and powerful: “Be a good friend.”