History & Opportunity

The Ah-Ha Moment

In 1976, native Vermonter Rick Davis launched what would be a successful career in commercial real estate development with the purchase of his first Burlington property. Several years later, in the midst of renovations on his second property, Davis was presented with a challenge that he turned into an opportunity—and a new life purpose—in a very different area of development: early childhood.

One morning at the construction site, Davis’ crew showed up to work and discovered that their tools had been stolen. When police found a group of elementary and middle school children hawking the tools in Burlington’s downtown marketplace, Davis made a pivotal decision: rather than pressing charges, he opted to talk to the children and their families—and he even ended up offering a few of the kids jobs at the site.

As Davis learned more about the children’s lives and the power of mentorship, he became inspired to join and then direct the board at the King Street Center, a nonprofit that provides children and families the life-building skills necessary for a healthy and productive future. There, it became increasingly clear to him that the best opportunity to prepare children for success in life is during the first years.

Davis felt strongly that all children deserve an equal chance to succeed, but as he explored Vermont’s early childhood system, he saw that it was a granulated patchwork of organizations that were chronically underfunded, and therefore struggled to meet the real needs of children and families. It was clear to him that change was needed at a systems level.

So, in 2000, Davis and long-time friend Carl Ferenbach co-founded the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children with a joint investment of $250,000. Davis then worked to expand the funding collaborative, bringing in the A.D. Henderson Foundation and the Turrell Fund. The funders then launched a series of initiatives designed to divide and conquer Vermont’s child care challenges.

Progress in Action

The first of these initiatives, launched in 2005, was the Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative (VCPC), which expanded access to high-quality prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds. VCPC provides start-up grants and technical assistance to pre-K programs, including assisting them in forming partnerships with school districts so they can participate in Vermont’s universal pre-K legislation, Act 166.

When VCPC launched in 2005, the total enrollment in Vermont for prekindergarten was 2,500 children. Currently, more than 8,800 children are enrolled, representing 72% of age-eligible children in Vermont. 

In 2011, the funders decided to expand their focus to even younger children, and founded Vermont Birth to Three—now Vermont Birth to Five—to mentor child care providers in elevating the quality of their programs. Since its founding, VB5 has increased the number of family-based child care programs participating in the state’s quality recognition system (STARS) from 15% to 74%. 

Certainly, excellent work was happening for young children at the direct service level, but Davis knew that large-scale systems change would also require a culture shift in the state: To fund the early childhood system at a level that made high-quality, affordable early care and learning both sustainable for child care providers and affordable for families, the state would have to determine the stewardship of its youngest citizens’ development a priority. Davis realized that a statewide public education and awareness campaign was necessary.

In 2014, the funding collaborative launched Let’s Grow Kids, a public awareness and advocacy campaign charged with educating the general public about the brain science of early development. In 2016, statewide polling showed an increase in public understanding of the importance of the first years, so the campaign shifted its strategy to advocacy for increased public investments in high-quality, affordable child care. The campaign now counts among its ranks more than 13,000 supporters and has volunteer-led Action Teams in every region of the state. Since 2015, Let’s Grow Kids and its partners have successfully won an additional $1.3 million in funding for Vermont’s Child Care Financial Assistance Program and $2.2 million to fund a new grant program for Vermont’s child care providers participating in STARS. These victories are important steps in the right direction—but only the tip of the iceberg compared to the total investment needed for Vermont children.

Join Our Collaborative

Let’s Grow Kids and Vermont Birth to Five continue to drive every day toward the Permanent Fund’s mission of ensuring access to high-quality, affordable child care for every Vermont child by 2025. Our annual polling and tangible impact speak to our effectiveness. But we need more funding support to make this happen. Please take a look at our Get Involved page to learn how you can join Rick Davis and the funding collaborative in investing the resources to give every child a strong start.

Rick Davis’ Honors:

  • 2006 Vermont Philanthropist of the Year
  • 2015 Excellence in Philanthropy award from the Vermont Community Foundation
  • 2016 Vermont Lifetime Leadership Award from the Vermont Council on Rural Development

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