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Early education careers help to empower women

women sitting around a table doing college course work

A Phoenix-area nonprofit that helps women experiencing economic hardship to pursue college courses and begin professional careers is guiding many of those women to opportunities in early childhood education.

Live & Learn works with 40 to 50 women every year to earn their Child Development Associate (CDA) Credential and associate degree through the help of the First Things First College Scholarship program and the Arizona Early Childhood Workforce Registry.

As Live & Learn clients, the women enrolled receive ongoing coaching and mentoring, financial literacy education and life-skills development from the organization. They also are helped to transition to community college and offered support through a variety of career pathways, one of which is early childhood education.

“So many families in poverty are headed by single moms,” said Live & Learn Development Director Erin Mowad.

Live & Learn works with women experiencing poverty to empower women to break the cycle of poverty by advancing their education, securing steady, reliable employment and teaching life skills.

 “They receive wrap-around supportive services,” Mowad said. “They work hard, but the results are great. It does break the cycle because they receive the skills they need to stay stable.”

Stephanie Castillo, Live & Learn’s client and program manager, recruits clients at child care centers.

Many times, it’s easier to get a majority of the staff to work to toward their CDA as a group, Castillo said. The CDA is a key stepping stone on the path of career advancement in early childhood education. The average annual wage for a child care worker in Arizona ($28,590) is lower than the national average of $29,900, according to 2018 figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We meet with them one-on-one to discuss hurdles,” said Castillo.

“I outline how to do the certification program online,” she said. Castillo also helps the women get registered for college courses, fill out financial aid paperwork, apply for scholarships and set up college advisement services. The women support each other as a cohort, but Castillo continues to meet with the women one-on-one to discuss hurdles they face as they start on their college career.

“We do the supportive piece,” Castillo said. “We meet with them one-on-one to discuss hurdles.”

Challenges for their clients typically include lack of transportation, domestic violence situations and the need for basic assistance, such as help with rent, utilities, food and toiletries.

“We’re helping them move toward financial self-sufficiency,” Mowad said.

The Start of Live & Learn

Jocelyne Cruz started at Live & Learn in 2015. She had dropped out of college, where she was pursuing a degree in graphic design and she had a young child. She knew graphic design didn’t interest her, but she was enjoying caring for her son and other young children.

Someone encouraged her to study for her CDA, but Cruz knew she would struggle to pay for the classes. That’s when the Live & Learn staff helped her apply for an FTF College Scholarship, which paid tuition for her classes and helped cover costs for books.

“It was helpful for me to not give up,” Cruz said.

“Early childhood education is so important and I love it so much,” Cruz said.

As she moved through her Phoenix College classes, Cruz earned her CDA and in 2020, she received her associate degree in early childhood education. She was grateful for the FTF College Scholarship and was happy to pass along many of the early childhood education books that the scholarship helped purchase.

“I figured FTF paid for this book, so I passed it along to others who needed it,” Cruz said.

She went on to work as a home visitation coach, where she provided regular in-home visits to families of young children, providing parenting information and modeling ways to support healthy child development.

And now she is an infant and toddler teacher with Chicanos Por La Causa’s early childhood program.

“Early childhood education is so important and I love it so much,” Cruz said.

She gives parents of young children the same advice she was given as she was going through her education program.

“You need consistency and time,” Cruz said. “Every child is different, but I tell them to focus on the positive things they’re doing for their child and they’ll see the results of the good things we’re doing.”

Ofelia Gonzalez is a public information officer at First Things First. You can reach her at​

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