Helping low-income families and their babies flourish

Room to Grow has been working to ensure parents and their little ones receive the resources they need for more than 25 years.

Room to Grow CEO Akilah King

Room to Grow CEO Akilah King Yasemin Tulça

Room to Grow for 26 years has served communities in the Bronx and Boston by providing free items for toddlers and babies, connecting parents to services and resources, and working with parents to create strategies to hone their baby’s and toddler’s growth. So far, they have supported more than 1,300 families with over 4,000 hours of coaching and counseling. The organization also distributes 500 toys each week, and 65,000 pieces of baby and toddler clothing every year. A majority of families served (95%) identify as people of color and live in public housing. Forty one percent are single mothers.

New York Nonprofit Media sat with Akilah King, CEO of Room to Grow since 2015, about working during the COVID-19 pandemic, challenges over the years and the future of Room to Grow.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about Room To Grow

Room To Grow has been around for 26 years now. We were founded by Julie [Burns], who is still involved. She's our current board chair who was a psychotherapist in New York working with adolescents. She was picking up that teenage-age and school-age children, at that time, were incredibly under-resourced, and that perhaps there was a world in which, if you can get in earlier, we could be more successful in our work. Also around this time, there was a lot of research coming out around the importance of early childhood and brain development, so she put two to two together and created a Room to Grow. Essentially what we do – our model hasn't changed very much over the last 26 years –  is that we partner with families living in low-income circumstances, families with young kids, ages zero to three, to promote equity and opportunity and help children thrive from the start. We do this by providing three critical types of support. The first is parental guidance, and this is a way in which we ensure the well-being of the entire family. Room to Grow is a two-generation approach. It's not just about the children. If we check in with the parents, we know that we're not only supporting them in their long-term and short-term goals and in their parenting but centering them and their well-being so that they can be in a position to help their children in the best way possible. The second is we offer families essential baby and toddler items, high-quality items that include books, toys, equipment, clothing, and bedding, all to keep and they are merged in our family centers, like a baby boutique. There's a lot of light, and it's vibrant, it's fun, it looks like a retail store. All of these items are donated by the community. We have a team that ensures that they're age-appropriate, high quality and then we have some corporate partners too that are fantastic and helping. Then the last pillar is community connections. Our program team, based on a family's needs, can make introductions, and referrals so that a family can build out their support network. 

What makes Room to Grow different from other organizations serving children and families?

It is the combination of all of these services. So there are fantastic organizations, many who we partner with. They're not competitors, they're big names out there that do different aspects of this. What we're doing is we're connecting. For example, as you're talking about your child's development, that first visit is in the third trimester, making sure you're feeling ready to welcome this child to the world. Also building a relationship from the start. And then they come for these quarterly visits that are two hours, and the first hour is really where we can kind of dive in one-on-one. But if we're talking about your child's development that first hour, and we are implementing an assessment or a screener, and you're like we could probably move the need a little bit on the fine motor skills, here are some things that you can do at home to practice dexterity. When we go to the boutique, which is the second hour of the session, why don't you pull out a puzzle, and this is how your child at home can practice. There's this organic thread, and that is the essence of what Room to Grow is about. It's kind of this ongoing conversation, and we're offering families the resources and the confidence and the skills to think about supporting their child's development,

COVID-19 impacted a lot of organizations in obvious ways, but for your organization that focuses on the development of children, I’m wondering how Room to Grow adjusted and continued to thrive amidst such a challenging time?

From the beginning, Room to Grow has been working with families living in low-income circumstances. So when COVID hit, the challenges that they were experiencing, that's everything from access to quality services, structural oppression, lack of access to quality resources, were just exasperated, and we were fortunate enough as an organization to be in a position to pivot to support our families. So we're typically center-based, and within a matter of days, we went virtual. We figured out how to connect with our families over the phone. And then zoom became a thing. But FaceTime calls and at first, because we offer families a tremendous amount of baby items, we had to get creative around how can we support families in getting these material needs. We started with gift cards, like in the first couple of weeks and months of COVID-19, and then sent families bundles of actual baby items from our boutique. And so we also, at the time, were quite a step ahead with technology. We were already capturing a lot of our data online, on databases, on electronic forums, etc, and so we could really work and make sure that there's strong case management follow-up from a laptop at your home. What we saw at Room to Grow with our families and our kiddos are really in line with what we saw across the country. When we talk about these young children who were born and raised in the early years of COVID-19, and the delays in communication, the delays in social, and emotional development, Room to Grow children for many years have done extremely well. Their developmental milestones are on track and on par with their higher-income peers. We continue to see that, but we did see dips in our communication, in our personal, social outcomes. At every annual birthday for the kiddos, we do a screener to get a sense of where their development is. So we saw that. We continue to see that. It's starting to creep up, but it's in alignment with trends and data across the country. This is the heart of our work. In those sessions during COVID-19, we're talking to parents about, how can you foster a thriving environment to the best of your ability while you're stuck at home? How can you move the needle on communication? How can we continue to have conversations in the home? Everyone was limited, but just getting creative along how we could try to keep these kids growing.

What other challenges have Room To Grow faced throughout the years?

For Room to Grow some of our biggest challenges as we look to grow is being able to provide the same amount of items to every family. There's a huge component of equity that we value scaling up like a thrift store is a big undertaking. Enough donations through the door, managing it and making sure that our programming with families remains at a high quality. Our growing wait list is a challenge. There's a lot of word of mouth, which is fantastic, but growing and being able to take people off of that, which requires not just more baby items, but financial resources and support. And so I would say that those are really some of the things that we wrestle with as an organization and have always wrestled with in those ends, given how comprehensive our work is, and in some ways, holistic. Being able to locate families and be able to capitalize on our promise to them that these are the things that you're going to get every single time you walk into our family center. And then I would also share that external contexts also continue to make our work challenging. Our program team is fantastic, but this country doesn't make it easy for families to raise young children compared to other great nations. We are not investing nearly as much in supporting working parents of young children, everything from childcare to parental leave to child tax credits. There is a lot of research that these types of initiatives, and policies can move the needle tremendously for low-income families. Affordable childcare and affordable housing, for years, have been some of the top support needs of our families.

Where does Room to Grow stand on the looming budget cuts to childcare and how does Room to Grow work to solve issues related to childcare?

When it comes to child care, it's not just access to childcare, it's affordable childcare and it's quality childcare. It's been one of the top issues of our families for years. And what Room to Grow does is we do our best to help our families navigate. You come in and we'll google alongside you right on the computer that's in our office. It's really about supporting in the navigation more than anything, and being scrappy alongside our families when it comes to trying to find a place that they would love their child to be a part of.

What does commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion look like in practice at Room to Grow?

Almost all of our families, not 100% but 97% identify as people of color. As we work within BIPOC communities, it is important for us as an organization to acknowledge structural oppression and racism flat out and how it's impacted our families. It manifests as discrimination, whether it's employment, housing, education, they’re marginalized communities, and it has really prevented them from achieving economic security. We have always been in the business of equity. After 2020 and George Floyd, we made intentional steps to talk about that and our work in that way more explicitly, we are meeting family where they’re at, making sure that they have voice and choice and autonomy. This is not a parenting class program, but our practitioners are extremely culturally competent, and although we have this great, rigorous curriculum, it's really delivered in a way that's conversational and respectful. That is really the heart of our work and helps move the needle on material hardship. This is why we give free baby items. We wish we could do more truly, but we do know that even just being able to count on us to get enough toys to families and have them graduate with a library of 130 books so that they can reallocate any resources that they have to food or bills. We’re all about just being able to move the needle in every way that we can. 

What does the future for Room to Grow look like, and in a perfect setting, what would you want it to look like?

The future of Room to Grow is bringing our work to more families. It's pretty straight and simple, taking them off the waitlist in Boston and New York, and bringing our work to a third region and as many cities across the country is the dream. Making sure that we do excellent work, but are also attuned to the needs of families and the external environment. What are some ways in which we can tweak how we can do things? Making sure that our families, our graduates, have a voice and are our thought partners in this. We've been around for 26 years, but there are still so many pockets of New York and Boston who have never heard of us, and so this is not just for families to be able to know about us, to access us, and to build out our supporter base. We're a community truly and would love to get as many people on board with Room to Grow as possible.