North Star Journey

'To me, it feels a lot safer': Mankato day care serves a diversifying community

Two children play together
Penelope "Penny" Navarro points out a silly cartoon character to Ja'Maya Arnold as the two watched the cartoon on an iPad in the pre-K room at the Winning Heart Childcare Center in Mankato, Minn., on March 10.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

It’s another busy day at the Winning Heart Childcare Center in Mankato.

“This is our toddler room. Almost all energy, all the fun is happening,” said Director Anis Abdullahi as he led a tour of the facility. “This one has the most energy. The most chaos. This one will keep you on your toes.”

There are children and providers of many ethnicities here.

Children play together at a table
Penelope "Penny" Navarro, second from left, laughs as Ja'Maya Arnold went under the table to tickle her friends' feet before lunch was served at Winning Heart Childcare Center in Mankato, Minn., on March 10.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Winning Heart Childcare Center opened just eight months ago. It's already at 90 percent capacity. Abdullahi says the lack of diverse day care left parents frustrated.

“It's hard for them to entrust their kids with people (they) didn’t really understand or know what's happening in the day care or even what kind of foods they might be getting.”

Which led Abdullahi and his business partner Mohamed Ahmed to open up the center.

“We wanted to give them the option of hey, you can stay in Mankato. Well, we'll give you that option. You can go work and your kids will be safe here,” he said.

Serving the community

Three doors down the street, customers shop and enjoy lunch at Brothers Grocery and Restaurant. There are fresh sambusassavory African fried pastries stuffed with ground meat or vegetables — frying in the kitchen.

Asha Ahmed works at the restaurant. Her 2-year-old daughter is enrolled at Winning Heart. Ahmed loves the proximity to her workplace, and that she knows almost all the staff and the other moms.

Ahmed had a negative experience in the past with another day care. Her son, who's now in high school, was hit and scratched there. But Winning Heart is different for her.

“To me it feels a lot safer,” she said. “You know, 'cause like my daughter gets to be around kids that are from all kinds of backgrounds. Sudanese, Caucasian, African American, Somalis. It's great.”

Two adult caretakers serve food to four kids at a table
Zahra Hassan, right, and Sagal Igalle serve lunch to a table of toddlers at the Winning Heart Childcare Center in Mankato, Minn., on March 10.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Another restaurant patron, Hassan Noor, says he's lived in Mankato for almost a decade. He's seen people move to the metro area to find child care options.

Noor says with Winning Heart opening, some families returned, drawn by day care where they trust the staff.

“The kids also speak their own language. If they’re Somali then they need care in their language,” he said. “So that’s why I think this one had a lot of impact in the community.”

Two rows of cribs fill a room, one is occupied.
A single newborn sleeps in a crib in the quiet newborn room at the Winning Heart Childcare Center in Mankato, Minn., on March 10.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Statewide challenge

Other communities across Minnesota are addressing gaps in multicultural child care, ranging from barriers to accessing property to language issues.

In Faribault, there's interest in rehabilitating an old school to become a cultural center which would include a day care and a market. And in Rice County, a group of around 15 women learned business models for child care at a training session held in Spanish and English.

The Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation's Jeff Andrews says these examples indicate a shift in how communities with specific needs are finding solutions.

“What we're seeing smaller communities and the approach that I take and say, listen, let's recognize and resource our existing folks. But then let's be intentional about adding new child care. And what that really means is incorporating what are those micro needs that aren't being met,” he said.

Young children play in a room
Teacher Megan O'Brien leads a group of pre-K children in a dance where they made scary faces at the Winning Heart Childcare Center in Mankato, Minn., on March 10.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Back at Winning Heart Childcare, preschool teacher Megan O'Brien comforts a child.

“Are you ready? I think you are“ she comforts the youngster. “Remember we are brave. I am brave.”

Since joining the staff, the teacher has seen how much support the center received when it opened. Word got around, and community members dropped off large donations of toys, books and more.

Mostly, what drew O’Brien to Winning Heart was the center’s diversity and cultural immersion. She sees how it benefits her students from all backgrounds in early childhood development in the classroom. It doesn’t matter what language they speak, O’Brien says. They learn and play together as friends while embracing what makes each other special.

“I think that that really opens their hearts and their eyes and just the whole full awareness that other people can be different than me. And that's okay, I don't have to be scared of that difference I can like this difference,” she said.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.
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