“I knew I was good at working with kids. So, I thought I would do that while I was taking classes, even though I wasn’t sure if this was what I wanted to do. But being exposed to all the different needs in the community really showed me what I could be doing for children.”

As a teenager, growing up in the Berkshires, Sarah Muil saw the needs of families and children and started responding to them. Today she’s still doing this work as the director of the Austen Riggs Nursery School in Stockbridge, Mass., — and as a member of the second cohort of Strategies for Children’s Advocacy Network.

“I’m from a really large family,” Muil says. “My Dad is one of eight kids. My Mom is one of seven. I have a lot of cousins, and growing up I was very lucky, I was able to interact with all of them. I became the surrogate babysitter for everyone. And I’ve always loved babies and children in general, so it came very naturally to me to be a caregiver.”

As a high school student, Muil followed her older sister’s lead and worked for the Catholic Youth Center (CYC) where she took care of children in the afterschool program and on Saturday mornings.

Muil was also part of the CYC’s service society.

“I would help with food banks and at soup kitchens and with delivering Thanksgiving meals to families. We were always looking at where the needs were and how, as teenagers, we could help. After high school, I decided that students should be able to get involved in helping earlier, so I started the Middle School Service Society at the CYC.”

Muil went on to enroll at Berkshire Community College and got a job as an assistant teacher at Berkshire Country Day School. 

She spent two years, 1999 to 2001, working as an AmeriCorps Promise Fellow. 

“I was one of the first two cohorts in the state,” Muil recalls. “My terms were spent at Silvio O. Conte Community School,” an elementary school in an impoverished area of Pittsfield, “where I rebuilt their Family Center, established a Parent Leadership Team, and managed the after-school program and its grant, Connected for Success. This program provided me with a skill set in grant writing, community organizing, and beginning leadership skills.”

Muil also spent time reflecting on her future. 

“I knew I was good at working with kids. So, I thought I would do that while I was taking classes, even though I wasn’t sure if this was what I wanted to do. But being exposed to all the different needs in the community really showed me what I could be doing for children.”

She continued to work with young children at local child care programs, and at a child care program based at Williams College where she cared for the children of faculty and staff members. After this, she worked at the Berkshire County Head Start program, where she was a family advocate for 10 years.

This mix of jobs exposed her to a mix of families. Some had substantial resources and others had far fewer resources and opportunities.

“Head Start was one of the most personally influential programs I worked at because they’re there for children and they’re working to engage the whole family. Head Start addresses Adverse Childhood Experiences so that it can give children the same head start that children from families with more resources already have.”

“As a family advocate, I was able to engage with families and learn about them and what their children could bring to the classroom — and also what parents can bring to the classroom in terms of their culture and what it means to them to be the people who they are and face the struggles they have faced.”

For Muil this work is deeply personal.

“My whole life has been giving back to the community. Because I had such a great experience as a child, it’s hard for me to see children and families struggling and not work to help them.”

“I know I have a lot of privilege, but I can also share stories with families because at one point I was a single mom. I was on assistance. I had a housing voucher. I went through a domestic violence situation.”

Muil is also passionate about human rights and about the untapped potential of communities.

“One thing we’ve lost over time is the idea of communities being committed to supporting children and families. We have the strength of the school community. But the greater community around the schools has to be stronger. That’s something I try to advocate for now. Another thing we have to do is bridge the gap between early childhood programs and public schools so that we can help kids succeed and keep parents engaged.”

A key challenge, Muil says, is the workforce shortage in early education, K-12, and special education. It’s a challenge she addresses as nursery school director, clearing away barriers so her teachers can do their best work. Collaboration is part of the solution, Muil adds, building connections between pre-K to12 and state agencies. But she quickly points out that this problem also needs a substantial, statewide investment that gives early childhood programs and K-12 schools all the resources they need to truly overcome the poverty and intergenerational trauma that some families face.

Given Muil’s experiences, joining Strategies for Children’s Advocacy Network was an easy next step.

“I wanted to learn more about how I could use my voice to advocate for others.”

Muil has already shared Strategies’ Advocacy 101 training with a group of child care program directors who meet monthly “to talk about real issues in real time.” Muil is helping to reestablish the group after it paused during the pandemic, and she’s encouraging directors to reach out to elected officials to share their challenges and needs. Before the pandemic, she says, programs were more competitive, but now they’re more focused on trying to help each other.

“Firing people up can really help with advocacy. And part of the Advocacy Network experience for me is learning about other people’s stories and thinking about what I can borrow, or I can reach out to someone after our meeting and ask how they did something and share that with other people.”

She adds: “I like to know what’s going on and being part of the Advocacy Network is an extension of that. It’s another way for me to understand who the stakeholders are that I really need to be speaking to. It’s a way to gather voices because it takes a lot of voices to make change. We have to relearn how to engage. Personal connections are so important.”

Muil wants to extend her activism from the community level to the state and federal level so she can have the greatest positive impact on children and families. And she wants to reach as many people as possible locally.

“I’m always wondering how I can duplicate myself so I can share more. I want people to talk about me in other spaces because I gave them an idea, or I cheered them on, or I helped, or I lifted them up in some way. Talk about me so that someone else can contact me. Networking is so important, and we lost a lot of that during the pandemic. It’s important that we are here, that we are showing up for each other, that we are supporting each other.”