Filling a ‘critical’ need for child care

Bethany Christian Services’ Hands Connected program helps refugees become home-based providers.
Justine Kanyere and Joseph Muhindo painted, reorganized and did a thorough cleaning of their dedicated child care spaces to prepare for their reopening the last week of May. Courtesy Hands Connected

A program Bethany Christian Services launched three years ago is aiming to meet the region’s growing need for child care while giving refugees the chance to launch their own home-based businesses.

Hands Connected, which Bethany started in 2017, is a hub-and-spoke program in which Bethany, the Refugee Education Center and other partners provide support to men and women refugees from various countries so that they can become home-based or center-based child care providers through the program’s multicultural early childhood center.

The prospective educators receive financial support, individualized training, home and business setup and licensing assistance to begin operations, as well as curriculum and language development and ongoing technical support.

After the entrepreneurs receive licensing for the care of up to six or 12 children in their homes, they become part of a home-based educator network serving refugee and nonrefugee parents.

As of the end of May, there were 16 licensed, active businesses through Hands Connected with an overall capacity to care for 140 children.

Kim Sturgeon, program coordinator for Hands Connected at Bethany, said the program is important in giving refugees control over their economic futures — but also because as the economy restarts in the wake of COVID-19, a “critical” shortage of licensed quality care providers is coming to light.

“There will be businesses that decide they may not want to reopen coming out of this, so it’s going to be an urgent, critical need,” Sturgeon said. “It’s always been important, but now more than ever, it’s important to have the resources to support both center-based and home-based businesses.”

Hands Connected was initially established with startup funding from the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but the program now relies on support from Bethany, the Refugee Education Center, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Fifth Third Bank. Sturgeon said the program can always use more donations.

“As far as community involvement, we’re always looking for donations of educational materials and equipment, books, pack-and-plays, highchairs, etc. They have to be in ‘like new’ condition because they do have to comply with licensing requirements,” she said.

According to Bethany’s website, refugees are defined as survivors, asylum seekers and families escaping violence. Women and children represented 72% of U.S. refugees in 2016, Bethany said. In 2017, there were an estimated 19.9 million refugees worldwide, according to the National Immigration Forum. About 22,491 refugees were resettled in the U.S. in fiscal year 2018, according to NPR, which is less than half of the 45,000 cap the U.S. allowed that year. Under President Donald Trump’s administration, the cap was lowered to 30,000 in 2019 and 18,000 in 2020.

According to Hands Connected, half of the refugee population in West Michigan is made up of children who are English language learners and/or live in a dual-language home. Quality early learning opportunities are necessary, so these children are on track developmentally and are ready for kindergarten along with their American-born peers, ensuring they do not fall behind early in life.

Additionally, early employment for adult refugees is vital to families’ financial stability and long-term integration. To obtain this, parents need to quickly enroll in English classes, job training and employment, making child care essential and urgent.

The Hands Connected program aims to meet both needs and is committed to providing “culturally and linguistically responsive education” for children ages birth to 5.

One way culturally responsive education manifested in a recent training was when an instructor invited provider trainees to teach activities they did as a child in their homeland. As a husband-and-wife couple began to teach the group how to play a game similar to jacks but with a clementine and pebbles, a Somali trainee said, “Oh, I know this game, but we do it this way,” followed by similar feedback from a Burmese provider who had a slightly different twist on the game.

“That led into a full discussion about things we have in common, similarities and then where there are differences, how do we engage around those differences?” Sturgeon said.

She added training also incorporates different cultural norms, traditions, food and languages, and interpreters are always present at the sessions.

A list of providers at reveals the providers speak about a dozen languages, in addition to English.

“Our hope is that with the investment of community resources, those providing quality child care will come through this current crisis better connected and equipped to provide critically needed child care services to our community that will allow us to regrow our economy and thrive.”
Kim Sturgeon

Nan Sai is a licensed family home provider on Andrew Street SE in Kentwood. She kept her business open for children of essential workers during the shutdown. She has been licensed for 4½ years, and she and her husband came to West Michigan as refugees from Burma (officially Myanmar) in 2010.

Nan Sai spoke to the Business Journal through an interpreter on May 28 about her experience as a provider. She is fluent in Burmese, Falam and Tedim and speaks some English, as well. She said she provides care for children from Africa, Nepal, Myanmar/Burma and America.

She said after the governor issued an order for child care centers to remain open if they could for children of essential workers, she was constantly frightened about the children’s safety and whether they had COVID-19.

“So, I always prayed about it, and I got resources (such as masks, gloves and food) from the Kent Resource Center,” she said. “Every day, I pick up the kids with worry about the virus, and I keep on praying for the kids and for me not to be affected by the virus.”

Nan Sai said she changed her systems due to the pandemic and will continue to keep the changes rolling, including having hand sanitizer at the door for people to use, taking temperatures, requiring the parents to wear masks while dropping off and picking up their children, and having the children wash their hands frequently to prevent the spread of germs.

Joseph Muhindo and Justine Kanyere are husband-and-wife group child care providers who received their licensing two years ago to care for up to 12 children at once. They came to the U.S. as refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and speak Swahili, French and some English. Kanyere started as a licensed family provider, and when her husband joined the business after coming to the U.S. in 2013, they expanded to group care. They care for children from the Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania and Somalia.

The pair closed their business, located on Wingate Drive SE in Kentwood, for a time during the pandemic but have now reopened after a lot of preparation and reorganization, instituting temperature screenings, hand washing and PPE regulations.

They said they have had “many, many different experiences” through Hands Connected that taught them how to be effective, more organized and better communicators in their business, as they were not child care providers before coming to the U.S.

Sturgeon said Hands Connected continues to give all of its network providers one-on-one technical assistance and support; does drop-offs of masks, sanitizers and educational activities for the children; shares updates and resources on the pandemic; assisted its providers in obtaining the Child Care Relief Fund Grants that were provided to licensed homes and centers through federal and state programs; and helped providers that had to close temporarily to obtain unemployment benefits and resources through Kent County so they could survive the downturn and reopen on the other side.

“Many community agencies are partnering in these efforts,” Sturgeon said. “Our hope is that with the investment of community resources, those providing quality child care will come through this current crisis better connected and equipped to provide critically needed child care services to our community that will allow us to regrow our economy and thrive.”

As of March, Hands Connected had two or three licensed providers who had planned to launch their businesses but had to delay due to the outbreak of COVID-19. They are/will be opening their businesses as the economy reopens.

Hands Connected is launching its next training cohort for prospective child care providers in July, if all goes according to plan.

More information about the program is available by contacting Sturgeon at or (616) 965-8112.

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