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Help Me Grow gets $60K grant for ‘Parent Cafes’

As featured in:

Special to the Floridian

Updated: September 9, 2022

Help Me Grow of Northwest Florida has been awarded a $60,000 grant it will use to establish and support new “Parent Cafés,” in-person gatherings of parents in Jackson and other counties served by the organization.

The parents will be there to share with each other their challenges, their solutions to them, and generate ideas among themselves as they meet each time. There’s also a virtual-attendance option.

In a press release, the Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida describes this as an opportunity for Help Me Grow “advance family engagement,” with the parent-led and staff supported café sessions organized along some set themes that help keep the focus trained on furthering family resilience, social connections, support, knowledge and competence.

The grant was bestowed by the Help Me Grow National Center. The intent of the grant is to expand support to local parents and caregivers and to assist in outreach to families and local communities in: Bay, Calhoun, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, and Washington counties, the release advised.

An Op-Ed by Suzan Gage, Guest columnist

We’re facing a severe shortage of childcare teachers. Here’s how you can help.

August 14, 2022

What were some of the first early learning experiences you remember? Maybe it was singing a nursery rhyme, counting building blocks, or showing your budding artistic flair with finger paint. Whatever it was, it was special — your introduction to education, lifelong learning, and relationships beyond your family.

About 17,000 children under the age of 5 live in Northwest Florida, and all of them deserve bright early learning experiences of their own. Unfortunately, many of them may face difficulties accessing early learning opportunities because our area faces a severe shortage of child care teachers. 

How severe? Among parents with kids under the age of 5 in the seven-county region of Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, and Washington counties, nearly 3 in 4 say they’ve had difficulties arranging adequate early learning education opportunities for their child, due to a lack of available educators.

What is Kickstart Success?

To help address this shortage of child care teachers in the area, the Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida (ELCNWF) recently launched a campaign — called Kickstart Success — centered on encouraging individuals to become child care teachers. By becoming a child care teacher, they can kickstart the future success of Northwest Florida’s children, as well as their own success in a gratifying and fulfilling career in early education.

Early education helps both children and the dedicated adults who teach them. Early learning is proven to help children lead successful lives — research has shown an annual 13% return on investment per child through better education, economic, health, and social outcomes for children who are enrolled in high-quality early childhood education programs.

Career is early education is attainable

Additionally, a career in early education is highly attainable through training and certifications. Child care teaching is a career like no other because of the clear and meaningful impact it has on children’s lives. It’s a child care teacher’s job to introduce kids to learning, set them up for educational and lifelong success, and be a positive influence in their lives. Nearly 9 in 10 parents in Northwest Florida say their child’s child care teacher made a positive impact on their future.

Having worked in early education for years now, I’ve seen firsthand the many benefits that early learning has had on kids and their teachers, as well as the harm this shortage has caused to children’s education, well-being, and development. I encourage anyone with a heart for children and an interest in a rewarding career to consider becoming a child care teacher.

You have the special opportunity to create awe and wonder for a child by introducing them to the magic of education. Don’t let a child in your area miss out on their first learning experiences, and don’t miss out on a meaningful career opportunity for yourself.

Suzan Gage is executive director at Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida, Inc. If you have an interest in becoming a child care teacher in Northwest Florida, visit

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The News Herald – Pineapple Willy’s beach cleanups raise $12,300 for charities so far this year. Who’s next?

by Nathan Cobb

Published: Aug 5 2022 at 7:01 PM ET EST

PANAMA CITY BEACH — Melissa Traxler, CEO of Pineapple Willy’s Restaurant, says she believes it is important for businesses to give back to their communities. 

That’s why the restaurant on Saturdays hosts its Summer Beach Cleanup program, which raises money for a different charity or nonprofit organization each week. During the cleanup, participants gather at the restaurant located off South Thomas Drive to collect trash along the coast. 

For everyone who attends, Pineapple Willey’s donates $10 to that weekend’s group. 

“It’s wonderful, and it’s what we do at Pineapple Willy’s,” Traxler said of giving back. “We want to set an example, hoping other businesses will step in and do the same thing.”

Traxler, who has worked at Pineapple Willy’s for more than two decades, said the Summer Beach Cleanup was created in 2018, one year before she became CEO. The event was not held in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

More participants means more money for nonprofits

This year’s Summer Beach Cleanup began June 4 and will run through Sept. 10. Last weekend’s cleanup benefited the Gulf Coast Children’s Advocacy Center, and this weekend will benefit the Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida. 

Traxler noted that the 381 participants in the July 30 event set a record for the biggest turnout ever in a Pineapple Willy’s cleanup. The restaurant donated $3,810 to the Children’s Advocacy Center.

So far this year, the restaurant has donated more than $12,300 between nine organizations. Restaurant employees also have personally donated about $2,500 between the nine groups. 

Suzan Gage, executive director of the Early Learning Coalition, said Saturday will mark the third time her group was selected as a beneficiary of the Summer Beach Cleanup. 

Focused on helping grow healthy children, parents and the relationships between them, the ELC operates in Bay, Calhoun, Gulf, Franklin, Holmes, Jackson and Washington counties. It has offices in Panama City, Marianna and Chipley. 

The group offers early morning programs for children, child care options and other programs to promote healthy development in children, primarily those who are 5 years old and younger. 

“We are so honored that (Pineapple Willy’s has) allowed us to be one of their chosen organizations,” Gage said. “There’s so many great organizations in Bay County that it could support. The fact that (Pineapple Willy’s) recognized the importance of early learning and what that (means) for our community just speaks the world of the kind of business it is.”

Gage also said she enjoys that she and her staff are able to perform a service project for the Panama City Beach area in exchange for the donation. 

“It’s not like we’re just taking or accepting,” Gage said. “We’re doing some service and receiving something in return. … It’s always nice to have some sweat equity in a program that you’re doing.”

When are the beach cleanups?

According to Traxler, participants clean the beach surrounding Pineapple Willy’s each Saturday from 8:30-9:30 a.m. All who participate get a raffle ticket which gives them a chance to win prizes, including gift cards to local restaurants, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and the Grand Theatre at Pier Park.

She noted that while Pineapple Willy’s does not weigh the collected trash after each event, “a lot” was picked up last weekend.

“One of our main goals is to always give back to the community,” Traxler said. “We have the world’s most beautiful beaches, and we want to keep it that way.”

For more information on the Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida, visit

Sensory Activities for Young Children

So What Is Sensory Play?

Sensory play includes any activity that stimulates a young child’s senses such as: touch, smell, taste, movement, balance, sight and hearing. Sensory activities facilitate exploration and naturally encourage children to use scientific processes while they play, create, investigate and explore. Providing opportunities for children to actively use their senses as they explore their world through “sensory play” is crucial to brain development, as it helps to build nerve connections in the brain’s pathways.

Blowing Bubbles

Bubbles are always fun, and you may think that it is just a simple activity. But did you know that blowing bubbles actually helps with language development in young children? When properly blowing a bubble, it helps to strengthen the muscles in the mouth that are used for speech.

Child Blowing Bubbles

Moon Sand

Sand play of all types can be calming for a lot of children and can help them develop a sense of texture. We like this moon sand here because of the way you can mold and sculpt it. Playing with moon sand can strengthen the small muscles in the hand, which can help with pre-writing skills for a young child.


  • 8 cups flour
  • 1 cup baby oil
  • (or essentially 1/4 cup baby oil for every 2 cups of flour)
  • Pro Tip: Make this mixture outside on the grass, your carpet or flooring will thank us later!
Child playing with sand

Washing Station

Bring out any wash basin or small tub and let your children wash–baby dolls, toy trucks, cars, dishes, almost anything will work. Bring out the soap, sponges, and washcloths.

Water play boosts the senses by providing the opportunity for the children to feel the wetness, hear the splashing, taste the droplets, and see bubbles. It develops eye-hand coordination, math and science, concentration, social/communication, and physical skills, and can also help calm overwhelmed children.

Music Shakers

Gather little items around the house that make different noises (dried beans, dried noodles, coins, small pieces of toys) and put them into a toilet paper roll or paper towel roll. Glue/tape/staple the end together and shake, shake, shake!  Sound is often forgotten as a sensory mode, but is very important and can have a huge impact on future learning.

Kids music shakers

Shredded Paper

While it sounds like this may be messy, hear us out! Let your children tear up magazine pages or newspapers, cereal boxes, unwanted junk mail, etc. Tearing and being able to tear is the first step to being able to hold and use scissors correctly.

Shredded paper

Early Learning Coalition launches recruitment campaign

As featured in:

Staff Report

The Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida (ELCNWF) last week announced the launch of Kickstart Success, a new campaign aimed at addressing the critical shortage of childcare teachers in the seven-county region of Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, and Washington counties.

The campaign is meant not only to highlight the need for childcare teachers in Northwest Florida, but also to underscore the importance of their role in a child’s lifelong learning journey. The campaign encourages Floridians to give both their career and children’s education a head start at the same time by becoming a childcare teacher.

As part of the Kickstart Success campaign, ELCNWF has launched compelling advertisements through social media, television streaming, and out-of-home opportunities in the geographic region. The advertisements direct viewers to a campaign landing page,, where interested parties can get connected with childcare centers.

According to a recent survey of registered voters within the seven-county region, about half of residents (48 percent) believe there is a critical need or shortage of childcare teachers in their home area. This is the case for 70 percent of those with children under the age of 5, the primary attendees at childcare centers.

The survey also found that this profession is highly valued by residents in the area. Nearly nine in 10 voters (88 percent) in the seven-county region say their child’s childcare teacher made a positive impact on their future. Additionally, nearly nine in 10 agreed that childcare teachers are integral to a child’s life and early development.

“Childcare teachers kickstart lifelong learning and success for children in Northwest Florida, and this career path also helps them kickstart their career in early education,” said Suzan Gage, executive director of ELCNWF. “That’s what this important campaign is all about – highlighting this meaningful profession to the community and ensuring that there are enough childcare teachers available to give local children the headstart on their education that they deserve.”

The Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida works to provide Northwest Florida families access to high-quality childcare, supports to cover the costs of childcare, and other services and resources to ensure a child’s success in school and life.

The survey’s findings

Some of the key findings from a survey of 400 residents across the Northwest Florida region, conducted by The Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida:

  • 4 in 10 (42 percent) of residents with children age 5 currently have a child enrolled in an early education program.
  • Half (50 percent) of residents with children ages 5 through 17 report their child used to be in an early learning program. 
  • About half (48 percent) of respondents believe there is a critical need, or shortage, of early learning educators in the area they live. 
  • 70 percent of residents with children under age 5 believe there is a critical need, or shortage, of early learning educators in the area they live. 

Asked whether there is a high demand for early childhood educators, 69 percent of total respondents agreed. Below is a breakdown of the counties your readers are from:

  • 82 percent in Franklin County agreed.
  • 72 percent in Gulf County agreed.
  • 85 percent in Holmes County agreed.
  • 75 percent in Washington County agreed.

Asked if there is a critical need, or shortage, of early learning educators in the area,

  • 62 percent in Franklin County agreed.
  • 67 percent in Gulf County agreed. 
  • 52 percent in Holmes County agreed. 
  • 50 percent in Washington County agreed.

Asked the degree to which respondents agreed with the statement early learning educators are integral to a child’s life and early development:

  • 100 percent in Franklin County (net) agreed (responded ‘strongly agree’ or ‘somewhat agree’). 
  • 79 percent in Gulf County (net) agreed (responded ‘strongly agree’ or ‘somewhat agree’). 
  • 97 percent in Holmes County (net) agreed (responded ‘strongly agree’ or ‘somewhat agree’). 
  • 94 percent in Washington County (net) agreed (responded ‘strongly agree’ or ‘somewhat agree’). 

How Childcare Impacts the State’s Economy and Shapes Florida’s Workforce

A Florida TaxWatch Briefing

Childcare Impacts on Workforce Participation
The economic importance of early childhood education extends far beyond the direct development benefits for children and the associated long-term outcomes. Having sufficient access to quality childcare provides an added, more immediate benefit to working parents who oftentimes must weigh caregiving responsibilities with maintaining a job. Early learning opportunities thereby support workforce participation and advancement, strengthening the overall economy. At the same time, however, childcare challenges can form a prohibitive barrier to parents seeking to stay engaged in the workforce when there is an insufficient supply of affordable or quality childcare options. Read more…

United Way distributes almost $500k to local non-profits

by: Jake Holter

Updated: Jul 14, 2022 / 06:32 PM CDT

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — United Way contributors are seeing evidence of their money being put to work.

The United Way of Northwest Florida is distributing nearly half a million dollars to 29 different agencies.

That’s more than three times the $150,000 handed out last year.

The Early Learning Coalition will be able to fund “Help Me Grow” services to a six-county area.

And Bay County Council on Aging’s “Meals on Wheels” volunteers are being reimbursed for the extra money they’ve spent due to higher gas prices.

President and CEO Gina Littleton said it’s exciting to see the community bouncing back after Hurricane Michael and the pandemic.

“We’re really excited to be able to say that our Community Impact Fund is three times bigger this year,” Littleton said. “I think the key reason that it’s bigger is that we just have an amazing community. We have so many fantastic supporters, so many incredible businesses that hold workplace campaigns and donate to United Way and we were very excited to be able to put almost half a million dollars back into the community this year.”

United Way will also distribute $165,000 in previously designated funds.

Click this link to learn more about how to donate.

ELC Featured on WJHG – Local organization helps struggling parents pay for child care

By Katie Bente

Published: Jul. 8, 2022 at 5:56 PM CDT

BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) – Families everywhere are struggling to keep up. If the price increases on gas and rent weren’t enough, many parents are facing another worry: how to afford child care.

At Hawk’s Nest Learning Tree in Lynn Haven, the price of staying open is steep.

“Even the cost of supplies has gone up so getting the basic needs for the children to have is hard,” Jaimie Young, Owner and Director of Hawk’s Nest Learning Tree, said.

Hiring has been even harder.

“That’s the biggest issue we’re running into is getting employment because most people can go work down the street for more,” Young said.

The child care center has been open only a year, and already, Young said she’s had to bump up her prices by about $25. And she isn’t the only one.

“I think it probably is safe to assume that childcare is probably looking at a 25% to 35% increase,” Suzan Gage, Executive Director of the Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida, said.

It’s a tough pill to swallow for parents on a tight budget.

“Because it can cost anywhere probably $175 to $350 depending on the age of the child and that’s per week. So times two kids and someone who’s making $15, $16, $17 an hour, you’re spending the majority of your take-home pay on childcare,” Gage said. “So families are having to ask that hard question you know is it worth it?”

It’s a question the Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida works to ensure no parent has to answer. The organization uses state funds to help struggling families pay for quality child care. But even then, finding a center with an opening in Bay County can feel nearly impossible.

“So in Bay County, childcare is an intense business. We’re kind of in a shortage of childcare facilities,” Gage said.

Hawk’s Nest has over 500 families on a waiting list right now. But Young said she hopes with better pay, she can recruit more people to care for those kids.

For more information on if you’re eligible for assistance with the Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida, you can head to here.

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