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A Look Back at 2023

A Look Back at 2023 2560 2560 Way to Grow

What a year it has been at Way to Grow! From January through December, we packed our year with family programming, staff collaboration, and community connections. Here are some of our favorite highlights from this busy year:


Rise on 7

This year, Way to Grow partnered with CommonBond Communities and Rise Early to launch a new affordable housing community with an early childhood learning center in St. Louis Park.

The Rise on 7 community will offer 120 units of new-construction affordable housing and a ground-floor commercial space being reserved for Rise Early Learning. Rise Early Learning, in collaboration with Way to Grow, will provide on-site childcare and early learning programs for families and community members at Rise on 7. This distinctive partnership is the first of kind in Minnesota and offers much-needed affordable housing and childcare accessibility in the area. A portion of the spots for students will be reserved for residents of Rise on 7, and at more affordable rates than what is typical of childcare services in the Twin Cities.

You can read about the project and its progress in the Star Tribune.

Partnership with Osseo’s Early Childhood and Family Education

In 2023, Way to Grow continued its partnership with Osseo’s Early Childhood and Family Education (EC&FE) through Osseo Area Schools Community Ed. Together, we are providing free parent and child classes in Brooklyn Center, serving parents and children birth to age five.

Each month, families can attend Way to Grow Family Play Time where they can learn and play alongside other Way to Grow families, with structured play activities, songs, movement activities, and stories. Additionally, families can attend a monthly Way to Grow Family Affinity Group where parents can learn, discuss, and explore family topics alongside a community of other parents and caregivers!

Photo credit: Andres Perez


Meet Destiny and Sharla

In February, you were all introduced to our latest My Scholar, Destiny, and her Mom, Sharla.

Destiny’s journey with Way to Grow began when she was just two years old, pointing out the Way to Grow Preschool Pals bus each time it drove past her Minneapolis home. After a bit of research, Sharla and Destiny began attending Play to Grow groups with other Way to Grow families.

“Both Destiny and Sharla would attend nearly every week,” remembers Mr. Tony, Destiny and Sharla’s Family Educator. “Over time, Destiny became more confident in herself and started to join in small group activities.” 

These days, Destiny’s lost some baby teeth and is now a vivacious first grader!

Read more of Destiny’s story on our blog!


Community Baby Shower

In March, we held the first of five Community Baby Showers in partnership with Broadway Family Medicine in North Minneapolis, and First Care in Richfield. These events celebrated new parents in the community, as well as provided Way to Grow the opportunity to educate parents on important topics like attachment and bonding, safe sleep, as well as their own wellness and self-care with a new baby.

In order to help build a strong foundation for these families, attendees received care packages with critical supplies and resources, including baby books, outlet covers and other home safety supplies, and toys for newborns. Parents also had the opportunity to take home larger gifts like infant seats, hand-made baby blankets, and pack-n-plays. Thanks to our amazing partners, we were able to support over 35 new parents this Spring!

Advocacy for Children Day

In March, 21 caregivers, 25 children, and Way to Grow staff bundled up and headed to the Minnesota State Capitol for Advocacy for Children Day, hosted by the United Way!

Alongside other education advocates from across the state, Way to Grow families showed up to support early childhood care and education in the state of Minnesota. On the policy agenda: expanding access to culturally responsive, trauma-sensitive early child care and education for all children, prenatal to age five!


Dresses from Ella

Each spring, the Tushie family gathers dresses for Way to Grow families to remember their youngest daughter, Ella. In April, our office was filled with brand new dresses in every size, shape, and color of the rainbow. 

Family Educators picked out the perfect dresses for each of their families, and delivered them just in time for the warm spring weather. We are so grateful to be a part of this beautiful tradition. Thank you to the Tushie family for all of the smiles these new dresses brought to Way to Grow children!


Education is Power

On May 10th, we gathered at the Walker Art Center for our annual Education is Power event! It was a packed room that featured speakers including Way to Grow Board Members Art Rolnick, Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and Luis Moreno, Co-Founder at The TCBPN. We were also thrilled to hear from Sharla, a Way to Grow parent. She and her daughter Destiny were featured as a My Scholar earlier in the year, and their story continues to inspire us.

Our keynote speaker was Dr. Rhoda Mhiripiri-Reed, Superintendent of Hopkins Public Schools. She spoke on how the implementation of Hopkin’s strategic education plan made an incredible impact on students in the district. Much like Way to Grow, Hopkins Schools uses a personalized approach to help each child grow and reach their educational goals. We were so thankful we could hear from one of our own local education leaders making a difference in the lives of families in this community!

Third Grade Graduation

On May 20th, we gathered at North Mississippi Regional Park to recognize our 3rd grade graduates! We celebrated with a picnic lunch, plenty of sweet treats, jumbo yard games, and heartwarming words from our Family Educators.

While our 3rd graders (rightfully) stole the show, this graduation is also a celebration of all the work that families and their Family Educators have done together throughout their time with us. For some, it can feel bittersweet to say goodbye after years with our staff and program. Yet we love nothing more than to watch as families branch out on their own and continue their journeys, knowing we have helped prepare them to succeed in school and life. We are so thankful for the lifelong bonds we have with so many of these amazing kids and their families!

Preschool Pals visit the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

In May, our Preschool Pals classes began a unit on plants, just in time for Minnesota spring! They spent time learning about plant anatomy, their lifecycles, growing food, and gardening. To celebrate the end of the unit, Preschool Pals took a field trip to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum!

The kids attended the Arboretum’s Ready, Set, Grow! program where they watched a puppet show, looked at bugs under a microscope, released ladybugs into the greenhouse, planted seeds to bring home, and went on a bird watching walk! So many sights, sounds and textures to explore!


Way to Grow at the Minnesota Twins

This June, the Minnesota Twins gifted over 250 tickets to Way to Grow families. Folks got to experience either a night game on June 15th or attend a day game on Father’s Day!

With perfect weather and awesome seats looking right over center field, families got to spend time together and meet other Way to Grow families. As a special treat, those who attended on the 15th were even able to enjoy a free T-Pain concert at Target Field after the game!

While the Twins might have lost, spirits were high and fun was had thanks to the Minnesota Twins Community Fund. There’s always next year—go Twins!


Meet Ricardo

In July, we met Ricardo—a single dad from El Salvador who is raising his two sons to foster a love of learning and reading in Minnesota.

“He’s a very good dad,” says their Family Educator, Maria. Ricardo remembers meeting Maria for the first time: “Necesitaba mucho apoyo,” shares Ricardo. “I needed a lot of support.” 

Maria’s language-to-language connection has allowed her to build a strong foundation of trust with Ricardo and his boys.

You can read Ricardo’s whole story on our blog!


Early Learner Graduation

This August, Way to Grow had the opportunity to celebrate our Early Learner Class of 2023 at the Metropolitan Ballroom. One of our favorite annual celebrations, we watched as these young scholars walked across the stage and were recognized for all their hard work to be ready for kindergarten. Graduates were even able to take home books thanks to the incredible generosity of the Ciresi Walburn Foundation!

Early Learner Graduation is not just a recognition of kindergarten readiness, it is often the first (but not the last!) time parents see their children in a graduation cap and gown. Beyond the portraits and smiles, it is this image that invites families to envision a future where their child has achieved all they could ever dream of becoming, and Way to Grow is committed to making those dreams a reality!

Read more about the achievements of our 2023 graduates on our blog!

Back to School for Preschool Pals

At the end of August, it was back-to-school time for our Preschool Pals students. After a short break, the preschoolers were ready to begin making new friends, learning new skills, and having a ton of fun along the way!

For the littlest kids, time was spent learning their new routine, practicing classroom rules, and learning to play together. The older class was quick to remember the routine and adjusted wonderfully to the new afternoon time. Most of our friends in the PM class have known each other for over a year, so they were excited to see each other again and dive right into the new school year.

You can follow along with our Preschool Pals on our blog, thanks to our Lead Preschool Teacher, Ms. Gwen! 


Turning Pages, Changing Lives: Community Children’s Book Drive at the Mall of America

Just in time for back-to-school, Way to Grow partnered with the Mall of America Community Foundation, Thrivent, Barnes & Noble, and Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) to provide a day of fun and learning at the Mall of America!

It was a great day that featured crafts, character meet-and-greets, Nickelodeon Universe rides, and children’s author readings to Way to Grow families, all thanks to the Mall of America Community Foundation. We were also thrilled to be able to send families home with over 100 brand-new books thanks to our friends at Thrivent and Barnes & Noble!


Way to Grow Shine Celebration

We kicked off October with our annual Shine Celebration Gala at The Depot in Minneapolis. With speakers Dr. Anne Gearity and Dr. Yohuru Williams, it was an evening that shined bright with celebration, dancing (thanks to the Cypher Side Dancers and Dr. Mambo’s Combo!), and a collective reminder of how hope rooted in humanity can serve the community. Thanks to amazing donors and sponsors, Way to Grow raised over $400,000 in support of our Great By Eight program!


Over 20 laptops donated by AT&T

This fall, Way to Grow received a grant from AT&T to help bridge the “digital divide” in our community, helping families connect and learn in our increasingly digital world.

For many families, phones and tablets are the only digital devices in the home, making it difficult for students to learn virtually and for families to connect to the resources they may need. This grant provided funding for laptops and materials to support students in our virtual tutoring initiative, ensuring there would be a laptop in the home for children and families to use every day. A total of 24 laptops were given to Way to Grow families in need of access to digital technology thanks to AT&T’s support!


Way to Grow receives a $2 million surprise grant from MacKenzie Scott

We’re still pinching ourselves over the tremendous gift that MacKenzie Scott gave Way to Grow this year! On the impact of such a gift, our CEO, Carolyn Smallwood says, “It’s a game-changer in how organizations can serve more folks.” This new funding will go a long way toward serving over 300 Twin Cities families through our home visiting program!

We join the ranks of 24 Minnesota-based nonprofits to have received funding from Ms. Scott and we are thankful for her incredible vote of confidence in the work we do every day! You can read more about this amazing gift in the Star Tribune and on our blog.

Adopt a Family

Our community showed up for Way to Grow in the final month of the year by donating over 200 gift cards for our families! These gifts helped empower families to purchase needed household items and special gifts and treats, bringing smiles and hope during the holiday season. We are so grateful for the generosity of our supporters and for the opportunity to give something special to families in need.

Meet Destiny!

Meet Destiny! 1707 2560 Kate Kinkade

With a special love of painting pictures and reciting pages from her favorite book, Chrysanthemum, Destiny is bright, talented, and determined to be a leader. Her mom, Sharla, laughs: “Sometimes I call her auntie,” she says, “because she has an older soul.”

Destiny’s journey with Way to Grow began when she was just two years old, pointing out the Way to Grow Preschool Pals bus each time it drove past her Minneapolis home. After a bit of research, Sharla and Destiny began attending Play to Grow groups with other Way to Grow families.

“Both Destiny and Sharla would attend nearly every week,” remembers Mr. Tony, Destiny and Sharla’s Family Educator. “Over time, Destiny became more confident in herself and started to join in small group activities.”

When Destiny graduated from Way to Grow’s Preschool Pals in 2022, she was ready to start her next big adventure. Adjusting to kindergarten at a brand new school was difficult at first, but Mr. Tony was there to offer support and answer questions for every step of the process. 

Sharla explains that Tony is always checking in with her family to offer resources and support: “It’s never overwhelming,” says Sharla. “He’s always warm – it’s comfortable, genuine support.”

These days, Destiny is excelling in her studies at KIPP Academy. When Destiny isn’t in school, she’s probably playing with her turtles, Bobby and Steve, having snacks at the YMCA, or leapfrogging across your local library. When she grows up, Destiny wants to be an artist—and, with determination like hers, anything is possible!

Meet Aubrey!

Meet Aubrey! 2560 1707 Way to Grow

In a year and half, the confident, go-getter Aubrey went from being a cautious, nervous reader to loving books of every kind. Most importantly, she is now reading at grade level with an infectious smile!

Aubrey’s family educator, Alison, first met Aubrey and her family seven years ago. Through her many accomplishments made alongside Way to Grow, Alison saw Aubrey grow into a bright, happy girl who radiated confidence. But when 2nd grade brought literacy struggles, it was concerning to see how something as simple as a book transformed Aubrey from confident to cautious. 

As Aubrey exits Way to Grow after seven years, her smile—and confidence—is bigger than ever.

Culture to Culture Connections

In addition to the usual tools Alison uses to support literacy, including worksheets, writing, games, and “Reading A to Z,” connecting with Aubrey about their Native American heritage also supported Aubrey’s progress. Megan, Aubrey’s mother, truly appreciated connecting through their heritage, sharing, “Aubrey and I really liked it when Alison would bring books about our culture.” 

Aubrey attends Anishinabe Academy and was thrilled to bring home projects to show Alison what she had created and learned at school. Connecting Aubrey with her culture was important to Alison, and Alison was happy to help her learn.

Aubrey didn’t say “Goodbye” to Alison when she left. Instead, she said, “Gigawabamin,” which translates to “See you later” in Ojibwe. 

As Aubrey finished up 3rd grade, she asked why Alison only visited once a month. The answer was simple: because of the incredible progress she’s made! Monthly visits were enough for Alison to work, connect, and know that Aubrey was ready to move onto the 4th grade, at grade level. These days, Aubrey is working hard on practicing her cursive. 

At Way to Grow, we understand that language and cultural connections play a major role in helping children develop reading skills. Alison knows that Aubrey’s excitement and curiosity about reading, education, and her Native American culture, will take her far. While it’s bittersweet to see Aubrey graduate from our program, we won’t say goodbye. It’s a Gigawabamin to Aubrey and her family!

Meet our newest Board Member, Luis Moreno!

Meet our newest Board Member, Luis Moreno! 3334 1459 Maren Nelson

Tell us about yourself!

I have over 20 years of corporate experience in marketing, strategy and communications at multiple Fortune 500 companies. I have worked in multiple industries, including marine, powersports, outdoor power equipment, hospitality, healthcare, food, foodservice, food ingredients, and banking, among others. I have an MBA in marketing and strategy from the Carlson School, I am a Public Policy Fellow from the Humphrey School and a member of the Young American Leaders Programs (YALP) at Harvard Business School. In the past few years, I have been leveraging my knowledge of and experience in Human Centered Leadership and Emotional Intelligence to collaborate with experts from around the world to train a new generation of leaders to be more human. 

As you look into the future, what do you envision for our community?

I envision a community that is more united, connected and equitable, with good opportunities for all, for high quality education, career, healthcare, wealth, and overall prosperity. I envision a community where we all work together to reduce the achievement gap and the unacceptable racial and socioeconomic disparities. I also envision a community with leaders that are more human to foster workplaces that are healthier and happier.

Why is early education important to you?

Because given the fact that learning starts in very early childhood, I want to make sure that every child is provided with the gift of receiving effective education as soon as they start learning. No time to waste! 

What drew you to Way to Grow?

I have been learning more and more about Early Childhood in the past few years and last year, Vanessa Laird and Carolyn Smallwood told me about the opportunity to join the Way to Grow board. I was impressed with the organization, the work it has been doing, its trajectory, its partners, collaborators and the high caliber board members so I jumped at the opportunity! Thank you, Vanessa and Carolyn!

What do you do in your free time?

I like to spend time with my family, play with our pets, watch movies, series, and documentaries, listen to music, travel nationally and internationally and eat cuisine from all regions of the world!

State of Way to Grow: 2019 Annual Report & 2020 Update

State of Way to Grow: 2019 Annual Report & 2020 Update 800 350 Way to Grow

A letter from our CEO, Carolyn Smallwood

2019 was a big year for Way to Grow. Not only did we celebrate our 30th anniversary, we built a solid foundation for our programming by implementing the Parents as Teachers curriculum, integrating three internal database systems, maintaining our metrics, and expanding the number of schools reached by our services. As part of Way to Grow’s growth strategy, we opened our new office in the Harrison neighborhood and celebrated the three-decade journey that brought us back to where we began.

The strategies we implemented in 2019 paid off when our world shifted as a result of a global pandemic. In response to the needs of our families and the realities of the impact of COVID-19, Way to Grow pivoted to virtual home visiting, conducted groups online, created an online preschool, provided academic support to families learning at home, and made more connections to services than ever before.

None of us could have predicted the events that followed, yet even before the pandemic, Minnesota had one of the largest racial disparities in housing, health, employment, and education in the country. Our work was vital then, and it is even more critical today. The pandemic has exacerbated those inequities, and for months we have been hearing from families about the challenges they face and how Way to Grow is a lifeline for them when the world is so unstable and the future ever uncertain.

I am so grateful to the community partners, foundations, government agencies, corporations, and individuals that have supported Way to Grow during the past two years. Thank you for placing your trust in us and in the work that we do. I also want to thank our amazing Way to Grow staff and our board of directors. We came together to face unprecedented challenges—from expanding our program to supporting a community in a crisis. We’ve shown that we can weather any storm when we do it together.

Today we are at a crossroads. As we wrestle with the hard truths of racial inequality and watch as the disparities throughout our community are magnified, we cannot simply conduct business as usual. These times of great struggle must galvanize us toward action. Now is the time for us to come together as a community to push for equality and social justice for those who have been left behind. The founders of Way to Grow believed in that vision—that all children and their families deserve to live in a just and equal society. Over 30 years ago, we embarked on a mission to do just that.

Let us continue to work together, reaching for the possibilities of the future together.

Carolyn Smallwood

Your Community Needs You

Your Community Needs You 1000 584 Melissa Meyer

Our Way to Grow program is needed now more than ever. Schools are closed and parents are educating at home. Families are experiencing sudden unemployment and resource shortages. Accessing timely and necessary information in their home language is a challenge. The stress of this pandemic is adding more weight to the shoulders of families already isolated and trying to stay afloat.

We Can Help

Our work hasn’t stopped. Right now, “virtual home visits” are happening all over the Twin Cities. Our staff is:

  • Working with families language to language, culture to culture
  • Equipping parents to be their child’s foremost educator 
  • Helping parents navigate basic needs resources like food, employment, and healthcare  
  • Helping families keep their daily routines through these uncertain times

In the words of Lauren, a Way to Grow parent, “Miss Patricia [Family Educator] is my backup, my resource. I know I can count on her.”

Can we count on you?

Your community and your neighbors need you now. Here’s how you can help:

Financial donations are needed. Please consider a gift today to continue our virtual home visits and support check-ins with some of the most vulnerable families and children in our cities.

We have an immediate need for the following supplies to be sent directly to Way to Grow at 201 Irving Ave. N, Suite 100, Minneapolis, MN 55405:

  • Diapers, baby wipes, and formula
  • Cub gift cards
  • Target gift cards for food and household supplies
  • Books, games, and learning materials 

Thank you for your continued support—what we are doing together now, truly matters for so many.

Don’t forget to wash your hands!

Our Response to COVID-19

Our Response to COVID-19 5000 2500 Melissa Meyer

In the wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, top of mind is the health and safety of our Way to Grow staff, families, community partners, and neighbors. Knowing that our home visiting programming is a critical resource to our community, we have included an outline of our plan for continuing home visits while doing our part to limit the spread of COVID-19.  

To provide necessary parent and education support, we have moved to a “virtual visit” mode for home visits and support check-ins. All group education classes and events have been postponed until a later date based on direction from the Minnesota Department of Health and state public health officials. In addition, the Way to Grow preschool will be closed through the end of March, as we follow the Minneapolis Public Schools’ direction. We will continue to work to strengthen our internal structure to support virtual home visits and remote work options for all staff. 

We are monitoring updates and will follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Minnesota Department of Health, and state public health officials. These decisions are not made lightly, and we strive to maintain “business as usual” as best we can in a situation that can only be described as extraordinary and uncharted. 

Please remember that what we do together truly matters. Your support will be even more important as we move forward to continue educational home visiting and family support services to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. Thank you for supporting us, supporting our families, and supporting one another as we all care for our neighbors.

A Look Back at 2019

A Look Back at 2019 851 568 Angelique McDonald

It has been quite a 30th Anniversary Year at Way to Grow!

In 2019, we took a leap and moved into our new home on Irving Avenue North, and we’ve already hosted Cooking Matters courses, Dream Tracks groups, and several staff potlucks. This summer, we even got the help of Little & Company when they chose to design and install a mural in our new playroom!

Our families put a lot of work in this year as well, attending parent groups, Family Engagement Nights, advocacy events, and Parent-Teacher Conferences, all on top of regular home visits. All that work paid off when this fall, 90% of Way to Grow preschoolers were ready for kindergarten and 92% of elementary students showed growth on reading level assessments at the end of last school year. Way to go, families!

We also had another year of successful fundraising with our Spring Luncheon in May and our Annual Shine Celebration just two months ago. Together, those two events raised over $500,000. And we can’t forget Give to the Max Day last month, where we raised over $4,000 for our programming in just 24 hours!

While it has been a year for the record books, we know none of this would have happened without your support. Our children deserve every opportunity to succeed, and thanks to you they are able to do just that! Way to Grow cannot thank all of you enough for your continued generosity and support throughout the past year.

May the next decade be as wonderful as the last three! Happy New Year!

We’re Moving!

We’re Moving! 1200 600 Maren Nelson

We have big news! As of June 13, you can find our office at our new home:

201 Irving Avenue North
Suite 100
Minneapolis, MN 55405

We have loved being a part of the Broadway neighborhood for the past several years and this huge project will mean adjustments and a lot of packing! However, we are incredibly excited to be joining the Harrison neighborhood just West of Downtown Minneapolis and look forward to hosting more events in our space.

Early Childhood Education Prepares the Way for Future Success

Early Childhood Education Prepares the Way for Future Success 2560 2048 Susan Cossette

“Becoming a strong reader begins at birth. The cornerstones of reading success – language, knowledge, and curiosity – should be cultivated from infancy, and in every setting.”

Nonie K. Lesaux, PH.D.,Turing the Page

From the moment a child is born, every day matters to ensure they develop the literacy and learning skills required for success in school and life. Starting at birth, children are learning every waking moment.  In fact, babies and toddlers are either learning or sleeping! And between birth to age 5, a child learns at a speed unmatched the rest of his or her life. It is during these years – when more than 85% of a child’s brain is formed – that crucial brain connections are created. These connections help develop indispensable academic, social, and cognitive skills, which are the basis for learning.

In 2019, the Children’s Reading Foundation released a national school readiness study that establishes children’s kindergarten readiness points predict their academic achievement in fifth grade and beyond. These findings have far-reaching implications as communities work to close the achievement gap to ensure that all students are prepared for success.

The study, Readiness for Entering Kindergarten: The Impact on Future Academic Achievement, was authored by Lynn Fielding, Jay Maidment and Christian Anderson and analyzes longitudinal data for 380,000 U.S. students from first to fifth grade. Key findings are as follows:

  • Children’s language and literacy skills on day one of kindergarten range four to five years. Some have the skills of a typical three year old, while others have skills more typical of 7-8 year olds.
  • Students who start ahead tend to stay ahead. More than three quarters (76%) of the students studied who started in the top 20% are still in the top (or second to the top) 20% when entering fifth grade.
  • Conversely, students who start behind tend to stay behind. The majority (71%) of students who began in the bottom 20% are still in the bottom (or second to the bottom) 20% when entering fifth grade.

The good news is there is something that can be done to address this.  From the time a child is born until age 5, home is the easiest place to position a child’s academic trajectory. Communities, schools, caregivers, and parents all have a role to ensure children are ready for school on day one. And at Way to Grow, our Family Educators support and empower families to be their children’s first and foremost teachers—because children who begin school ready will have a rewarding educational experience.

The full study is available at:  https://www.readingfoundation.org/research

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