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Kara Waddell of Child Care Associates is Top 100 Nonprofit CEO of the Year

For 53 years, Child Care Associates has been a devoted advocate of quality early child education experiences for children, especially those in underserved areas, as an investment in the future of those children and their communities.

Founded in 1968, the nonprofit Day Care Association of Fort Worth and Tarrant County received funding from United Way to open two child-care centers with 30 employees to provide care for 130 children ages 3 to 5. From that humble beginning, the organization – now Child Care Associates – has grown to become one of the largest nonprofits in Fort Worth with more than 450 employees and an annual budget of more than $95 million.

In its 53-year history, Child Care Associates has served more than 500,000 youngsters through partnerships with area school districts to provide Head Start and Early Head Start programs as well as financial assistance with child care costs for low-income families and supporting infants, toddler and pregnant mothers through with meals and other services.

But all this would not have been possible without strong leadership devoted to the mission as well as a strategic approach to forging partnerships with early learning and other service providers.

Kara Waddell has been at the helm of Child Care Associates as President and CEO for nearly eight years, and she is the Business Press’ 2021 Top 100 Nonprofit CEO of the Year.

Expanding services to meet the needs of an ever-growing population of low-income families and children has been an ongoing challenge for the organization. But additional burdens as a result of the pandemic, make it even more daunting.

“We’ve listened to the child care providers working hard in our communities,” Waddell said. “Without a doubt, the single greatest challenge facing child care programs today is its workforce.”

As a result, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker and Arlington Mayor Jim Ross have joined forces with Child Care Associates and the Texas Workforce Commission to spend up to $2 million in public funding to raise the wages of early education teachers.

“We believe this initial investment is a critical first step in ensuring young children have access to quality child care,” Waddell said.

The funding comes from American Rescue Plan Act dollars allocated to the Texas Workforce Commission to boost monthly wages by about $250 per month for an estimated qualified 1,500 child care providers for up to six months, with extension possible through other grant opportunities.

Also, the three local elected officials have organized a Blue Ribbon Action Committee on Child Care to guide investment in child care improvements. Child Care Associates will provide its expertise and coordinate the multi-year initiative.

Waddell is uniquely qualified for this role. Under her leadership, Child Care Associates has become a national model for early learning and child development. Two of three children receiving child care subsidies in Tarrant County are enrolled in quality-rated child care programs, where classrooms are assessed to be at research-based thresholds for quality.

Among her achievements, she negotiated an agreement to raise the pay of Head Start teachers in Pre-K classrooms to the level of public school teachers. She also served as the founding Chair of the Early Learning Alliance and has advised state and local government leaders about early childhood education

She previously led Oregon’s child care and early learning system and served on Oregon’s Early Learning Council.

Proficient in Mandarin Chinese, Kara lived in China for 12 years, where she served families in extreme poverty as the director of a large, U.S. non-government organization focused on outcomes for children.

Waddell earned a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where she was also a Fellow in Philanthropy at Harvard’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organization. She graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in developmental psychology from Duke University.

“There is a crisis facing our child care system that requires immediate response,” Parker said. We need our community’s ‘best and brightest’ to help identify and accelerate solutions to these systemic problems.”

Speaking to the Top 100 audience, Waddell noted that the work at Child Care Associates requires business skills to be effective and efficient.

“Through our own work with 20 campuses, we work with about 1,800 children, families at 100% poverty. We also help pay for child care for about 12,000 low-income women and parents in the area. It’s our pleasure to be able to help give that boost that children need at a young age, as well as work with those families. Thanks  for giving us that chance and opportunity. Thanks for recognizing the nonprofit sector as an area that that does require business savviness,” she said.

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