Q&A with Cate Elander and Trina Stephens, MDC Great Expectations program managers

Cate Elander and son photo
Cate Elander and son

Cate Elander is a Program Director and Trina Stephens is a Program Manager at MDC, and they oversee and support our work with the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust’s Great Expectations initiative, which works to ensure that children in Forsyth County, N.C., enter kindergarten ready to learn and leave set for success in school and life. Cate is the mother of a two-year-old son, and Trina is the mother of two daughters, 21 and 15.

Trina Stephens and daughters photo
Trina Stephens and daughters

The two speak with MDC News about their work, their own experiences with child care, and why informal care is such an important piece of the child care puzzle.

What attracts you to this work at MDC?

Trina: Child care plays a critical role in both child development and family economic security. As a parent, knowing that I had regular, stable care for my daughters, and that they were learning and growing in nurturing and safe environments, allowed me to work. It’s important to me that other parents and families have the same opportunities. That’s why I value being able to facilitate efforts in Forsyth County to improve equity and access across all forms of child care.

What have your child care experiences been like? What obstacles have you discovered?

Trina: Finding the right set of child care arrangements can be really challenging for parents, but when you find them, it relieves so much stress and worry. With my oldest daughter, initially finding someone who was nurturing and whom I could trust to be with her while I worked was very difficult. I changed child care centers three times before I found one that was a good fit for the both of us. Once I did find a place where the teachers were nurturing, that’s where she stayed until she entered kindergarten. I adopted my younger daughter from my brother when she was two, and I found child care that was such a good fit that she continued to attend after school at that same child care center until she was 12. As a single mom, the support of family and friends was pivotal as well—they would watch my daughters when I had meetings at night—they were like her second parents, actually, and I don’t know what I would have done without that support.

Cate: My son has attended child care in two licensed programs in Durham, where the staff are paid living wages. At one of those centers, some staff still had to work second jobs because they weren’t able to make ends meet with their full-time positions at the child care center. The people who are responsible for caring for our youngest children—at such an important phase of brain development—should be paid fairly. This an equity issue that distresses me, and most importantly, it’s hard on the staff members and on the children in their care.

Can you say more about why informal care is such an important piece of the puzzle?

Trina: In North Carolina, where we are very focused on building quality in and increasing access to licensed child care—which is very important work, by the way—we don’t give attention to strengthening and supporting these other kinds of care. Family, friend, and neighbor care is more flexible and may work better for families in lots of different situations—those who want to foster strong relationships between their children and other family members, who work irregular or late hours, and families who don’t qualify for subsidy but can’t afford to pay market rates for child care.

Cate: Most families rely on family, friend, and neighbor care at some point, and many families use it regularly, either by itself or in combination with licensed care. Even if we had a universal system of licensed, high-quality, subsidized child care (a mother can dream, right?), we would still need to support and equip all the people and arrangements where children receive care if we want all of our youngest children to thrive.

What’s the solution you’re working toward?

Cate: What we need in North Carolina is a holistic child care ecosystem—where all kinds of care are honored, supported, and strengthened. That means families would have access to quality, reliable care that they can afford and works for their family; that caregivers and teachers have robust opportunities for affordable, accessible professional development and are compensated in alignment with the critical role they play in fostering healthy child development; and that children are nurtured by people who understand how they learn and grow.

What are your children’s latest breakthroughs that have made you glow with pride?

Cate: My son goes to school with his cousin, my sister’s son. My sister and I also trade off child care when school is closed (or rely on their rock star grandparents), and so the cousins spend a lot of time together. My son is so sweet with his cousin, who is a year younger than him, making sure he’s OK when he falls down, bringing him toys and snacks, and giving him big hugs. They are starting to play together in a more interactive way, and I love watching their relationship develop.

Trina: Since entering college, my oldest daughter, who has been shy in the past, has blossomed and become more independent. On the other end of the spectrum, my younger daughter, who is very outgoing, has started giving back by mentoring a younger student at the elementary school next to her high school. It’s been such a pleasure to see how my two different girls have grown and become their own people.