Back in March 2020, when Covid first hit and everyone else was hiding inside, Damaris Alvarado-Rodriguez was doing what she does best: Figuring out what her community needs, and then finding a way to help them.
The owner of two South Philly childcare centers — she’s planning a third for North Philly — knew her families needed someone to watch their tots while they performed frontline jobs; she knew they needed food and other essentials to get through quarantine. Cynthia Ortiz, who has worked for Alvarado-Rodriguez for 10 years, remembers her boss during those days.
“She was right there, Let’s find food banks. Let’s find diaper banks. Let’s find formula banks,” she says, “It’s hard for people that don’t speak English. So, even if they didn’t go to our center, she made sure people had food. She literally put stuff in her car and delivered things to people that didn’t have transportation, then she went back the next week with more.”
Alvarado-Rodriguez’s quick actions were not surprising. The first Latina to open a childcare center in South Philly has made it her mission to include families who’ve been overlooked and for whom childcare was unaffordable — a response to what she experienced in her early days in Philly, as a mother of four children.
Today, families of 220 of the 278 children enrolled in her The Children’s Playhouses pay no or reduced tuition.
But Alvarado-Rodriguez’s mission goes beyond just caring for children. She does the same for the adults in her community, finding jobs for folks who need them, connecting them with ESL classes, helping them get credentialed in early childhood education. On August 17, she officially launches a paid apprenticeship program for 20 childcare workers who will take courses and earn on-the-job experience in order to move up and then move on.
“We need to focus on providing for folks who are usually not invited to the table,” Alvarado-Rodriguez says. “You’ve got to provide them with the full circle: A place where they are wanted, a place they feel they’re a part of, a place that meets their needs. We meet the needs of our children all day. We need to meet the needs of their parents and other adults, too.”
A busy mind and boundless energy
Alvarado-Rodriguez grew up in “a traditional Hispanic household” in Puerto Rico and Brooklyn, where, although she always knew her “brain worked differently,” her ADHD went unmentioned and untreated. Family life was also tough. After their parents split up, she and her three brothers spent time in foster care. With the support of a high school guidance counselor, she learned to use her busy mind and boundless energy to her advantage: to strategize, to see the big picture, to speak up, to succeed independently.
By 21, Alvarado-Rodriguez owned and ran her own restaurant. By 27, she owned and operated a billing and collection agency.
She also invested in real estate in South Philly. After 9/11, she took her family, left New York, moved into that investment home, had her second daughter, and got a job as a medical assistant at Jefferson University Hospital. Laid off in 2003, she offered to care for a newborn for a family friend who couldn’t afford daycare tuition.
Alvarado-Rodriguez and her husband would go on to have two more daughters — and more than a dozen kids at home. The one infant she cared for “became six kids, which became 15,” she recalls. “I knew I needed to open up something legal, but I wasn’t very knowledgeable about that.” She enrolled as an education major at Chestnut Hill College.
“I’m on a lot of boards, and I go into all these meetings, and we’re talking about staffing shortages,” Alvarado-Rodriguez says. “But there’s no funds for workforce development — which is the dumbest thing ever. We need to figure out how we are going to move around those barriers.”
Alvarado-Rodriguez’s family was one of few Latinos in their neighborhood, and her daughters had been turned away by a popular nearby parochial nursery school. She decided she would open up a center for families like hers in South Philly. “I made it my mission to pull them out, to show them, It’s OK, you can cross these tracks. You are a part of this,” she says.
Getting folks new to the U.S. to entrust her with their children wasn’t easy. She had to figure out how to reach neighbors who spoke other languages (she speaks English and Spanish) and who held different values. So, she literally knocked on doors. She hired staff “from the Philippines, Cambodia, Burma — someone to represent every child.” She hired a man as a family advocate to communicate with households who were reluctant to speak to her, a woman.
It worked. “When I tell you we’re diverse … We are really diverse,” she says. More than a quarter of the children at The Children’s Playhouses are Asian; more than 20 percent are Latinx; more than 20 percent are African American. She even won over some of the neighborhood’s White “elders,” who enrolled their grandchildren. Earlier this year, she received a state award for equity and inclusion among early childhood educators.
Inclusion, of course, also means lowering barriers to entry. To do this, she enlisted support from the city, state, and foundations. This required more door knocking. “I would be coming to folks and saying, I want this, and, How do I get that? I had a couple of closed doors, but I kept knocking,” she says. “I remember telling the School District, All I need is an opportunity, and I promise you, you will not regret it.”
Today, The Children’s Playhouse enrolls children through Head Start, Pre-K Counts, PHLpreK, and has 20 spaces for babies from PA’s hard-to-snag Infant Toddler Contracted Slots. It’s received grants from the William Penn Foundation and Vanguard. “I have every funding stream imaginable,” Alvarado-Rodriguez says.
Her centers are also educationally progressive. Both are implementing Second Step, a leveled-up social-emotional learning program, and PBIS, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, for the increasing number of enrollees with physical disabilities and/or emotional or learning diagnoses.
Tapping into the new generation of educators
Covid hit the childcare industry especially hard, exacerbating an already difficult shortage of childcare workers. Alvarado-Rodriguez saw her fellow childcare providers struggling, especially those for whom English was a second language. So, in 2020, she founded Latinos Educandos Juntos, a nonprofit that brought Spanish-speaking family- and center-based providers online for coaching and advice. In 15 months, the program grew from five to 145. They shared their problems; Alvarado-Rodriguez and her team listened and shared solutions.
At the same time — because she’s apparently blessed with more hours in the day than the rest of us — Alvarado-Rodriguez enrolled in Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses program, a 12-week course that teaches business owners like her to, in her words, “strengthen my hustle.” As a result, she now also owns and operates Innovative Educational Consulting Services, a childcare business advisor that specializes in growing Latinx-owned childcare centers — because, you know, all those hours. “She’s got so much energy, it’s contagious,” says Ortiz.
To help alleviate the worker shortage, Alvarado-Rodriguez first needed to understand why more people weren’t applying to be childcare providers. “I asked myself, Why are Hispanics going into a van to work in a factory for $7.50 when I’m paying $15?” The reason, she learned, was that “they felt that they didn’t belong. They feel like the childcare profession wasn’t for them because of the language barrier. And, a lot of these folks actually had childhood education degrees in their own countries.”
“Even if they didn’t go to our center, she made sure people had food,” Ortiz says. “She literally put stuff in her car and delivered things to people that didn’t have transportation, then she went back the next week with more.”
Alvarado-Rodriguez started getting experienced workers’ transcripts translated through World Education Services. She connected them with ESL classes and other courses. She went back to her network of childcare providers and asked them to interview her new connects. “How else are we going to build our early childhood education teacher pipeline?” she asked them.
She also applied for and received a grant to offer in-house Childhood Development Associate (CDA) credentialing — in Spanish — so current childcare workers could both upscale and receive college credits toward associate or bachelor’s degrees at Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), Esperanza or Eastern. She sticks with her mentees all the way, even if it’s away from childcare. The point is not to keep workers in her employ — it’s to help them follow their own dreams.
Says Ortiz, “Damaris always is telling us, This is not your forever place. She’s always helping somebody.”
Ortiz started out as The Children’s Playhouse’s part-time cleaning person and eventually moved up to lead teacher. She’s now in administration and working on her associate degree in early childhood education at CCP.
Alvarado-Rodriguez has helped put two people through college, and has many more on their way. One Mexican-American mother of three has been working in a Children’s Playhouse toddler room for six months, working on her CDA, “putting what she learned into practice, and growing,” says Alvarado-Rodriguez, “Now, I’m asking her, What do you want to do after? Do you want to go to college? She’s not afraid anymore.”
Alvarado-Rodriguez wants to be part of building a model not just for childcare workforce development, but for workforce development in general. The CDA credentialing, for example, is offered only to current childcare workers. She’d like it to be available to potential childcare workers, too.
“I’m on a lot of boards, and I go into all these meetings, and we’re talking about staffing shortages,” she says. “But there’s no funds for workforce development — which is the dumbest thing ever. We need to figure out how we are going to move around those barriers.”
RELATED STORIES FROM THE CITIZEN
MOST POPULAR ON THE CITIZEN RIGHT NOW