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

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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