by Lauren Peterson
What a pleasure it was to spend some time with Julie Lutter, owner of Grandma’s Village, a Registered Family child care program in Hillsboro, Oregon. Julie shared the story of her Spark journey.
Although Julie was always drawn to kids, she had planned to be an accountant. In 1991, a single mom and unable to find care for her children, Julie “created the program for children that I couldn’t find. It was intended to be temporary. It went from a need to a career.”
While her career as an early learning professional started with a need for quality care for her own children, the attachment to the children has kept her in the field for 28 years. “Many of the children in my program come in as infants and stay until they turn 12. I am so bonded to them; they are just like my own.” Julie shows no signs of slowing down. Currently she is finishing her Child Development Credential (CDA) and has recently submitted her Spark portfolio in hopes of a 3-star rating.
After nearly three decades in the field, what motivated Julie to participate in Spark? Ami Russell, a Quality Improvement Specialist from Child Care Resource and Referral of Washington County reached out to invite Julie to an Improving Quality Training, an overview of Spark. Julie recalls, “I didn’t know what it was, but it was a free training, so I thought, ‘why not?’ Before I knew it, I was knee deep in it.” Julie shares that until fairly recently, she did not know how many resources existed to support providers.
Julie had some reservations at first. She could see that evaluating her program, completing her Quality Improvement Plan, and working through the portfolio was going to be a lot of work. “There was just the fear of the unknown.” Her fears and hesitations were short-lived. She relates, “I went from feeling like I have to do training hours to I have to do this because I want to learn more.”
Julie describes the many ways in which the process enhanced her program. She recalls a situation in which some parents shared a developmental concern about their child. She gave them an Ages and Stage Questionnaire (a developmental screening tool, required by one of the Spark standards). She suggested to the parents they take it home and have fun completing it with their child. She indicated she would do it with the child as well and then they could get together to talk about what they saw. Julie remembers that they were excited about doing it and were reassured about their concern as a result. Julie’s realization “If I had not had Spark and the knowledge to give them the ASQ, I would not have had the backing to tell them my thoughts about their concern. It would have just been me talking. The parents also recognized it as something they had completed at the doctor’s office. It was reassuring to the parents to realize that they were leaving their child with someone who does something that their doctor also does too. It was an a-ha moment for them about the quality of care I was providing.”
She describes other ways in which Spark has changed her relationships with parents. “I wasn’t really engaging them and involving them as much as I thought I was. Now my handbook really welcomes them and lets them feel like what they have to say is the most important thing.” Julie shares that the Spark standards about diversity and understanding the family’s culture have enriched her program for children and created deeper relationships with parents. Her enrollment forms have been changed to ask families to share their culture and their language. She reveals, “I never thought about asking parents to share that.”
In addition to improving the relationships with parents, Julie shares the many other ways in which her participation in Spark has impacted her personally and professionally. “There were areas where what I thought what I had was okay, but now I had the motivation to make it great. Our programs can always keep improving. I thought I was the master of it all these years. Spark gave it new life and gave me a new frame of mind.”
Julie spoke with great enthusiasm about being part of a community of early learning professionals. “I have developed great friendships with other providers who are doing this too. The networks and the kinships have re-energized me.” Julie expressed great appreciation for the support she received from Ami Russell. “Ami is so awesome. She was encouraging and organized and available. She was so good at honoring what we were saying and also gently adding advice or another angle to think about. She gave us the feeling we were accomplishing it.”
A new sense of professional pride was another unexpected aspect of participating. After 27 years and wondering ‘what am I going to do as a career when I am done with this?’ I realized, oh my gosh this is a career. I can keep building this. I don’t want to stop. I want to go as high as I can.”
Julie’s final thoughts: “It was self-rewarding to go through it. It was different from the rewards I get from being with the kids. For all the people who feel this work is nothing, this says it is something.”
At the conclusion of our time together, I had the privilege of informing Julie that her program had achieved the 3-star rating. When her excitement subsided, she said “It was a lot of work but it has been so worth it. It added to every aspect of my life.” Congratulations Julie!