By Emily Kestel

From left: Andy McGuire, Jaclyn Wulfekuhle, Christine Bruner. Photo by Emily Kestel.

If you had told Dr. Andy McGuire in 2002 that in 20 years, the United Way of Central Iowa’s Women United program would raise more than $26 million toward early childhood education, it’s safe to say she wouldn’t have believed you. 

“We had no idea this thing would take off like it did. We thought we’d maybe get 20, 25 people [on board]. We were so excited when we got to 40 people,” McGuire said. “It was pretty amazing that a bunch of women got together at a time when women weren’t quite what women are now, and thought we could do this, and did.” 

The group, which was then called United Way of Central Iowa’s Women’s Leadership Connection, began when former United Way CEO Martha Willits and former education director Maureen Tiffany gathered a group of women to discuss starting a philanthropic effort, where they chose to make early childhood education their primary focus.

They recognized that having early access to quality, educational child care supported their brain development, which then in turn positively affected the rest of their life’s trajectory.  

At the time, child care was seen as “a mom’s issue,” not an economic one. There wasn’t a lot of other action surrounding early childhood education in the community, McGuire said. “There were certainly child care centers trying to do it right, but I remember the legislature just kind of poo-pooed us for years.” 

Through fundraising, advocacy, volunteering and networking, Women United members have worked to raise awareness in the community about the importance of early childhood education. 

Women United Chair Christine Bruner has been a part of the group for nine years. She said progress has definitely been made on the issue, particularly around the heightened sense of awareness, but there is more work yet to be done.  

Currently, United Way of Central Iowa’s Women United program has about 500 members, with 25 in active committee roles, Women United Director Jaclyn Wulfekuhle said. Each year, they collectively give roughly $1.5 million. 

Since 2002, Women United has put more than $26 million toward efforts in the early childhood education area, affecting more than 15,000 students in Polk, Dallas and Warren counties. 

Among Women United’s accomplishments are: 

  • Helping 17 child care centers and 200 in-home providers achieve better quality ratings by giving them funds to improve their operations. Dollars can go to anything from supporting director salaries to purchasing quality learning materials. All of the centers they help fund have a majority of their families receiving child care assistance. 
  • Helping fund the T.E.A.C.H. and WAGE$ programs, which provide access to discounted education and salary supplements to child care workers based on their level of education.
  • Providing 4,000 books and spending quality time reading to preschoolers every year through the Book Buddy program.
  • Putting funding toward the Iowa Association for the Education of Young Children’s  ECQuIP program, which consists of a six-person team that supports early childhood programs with things like DHS paperwork, training and mental health.  
  • Igniting a powerful and passionate group of women that want to make a difference in the community. 

The Women United program in Central Iowa is consistently recognized as a top-performing chapter across all United Ways, Wulfekuhle said. 

She believes that may be due to how the chapter was set up to be more concentrated and participatory. The dollars are not directed by United Way staff, but rather through volunteer-run committees. 

“A lot of Women United programs are simply a giving threshold, but some United Ways like ours are mission-focused and invest the dollars more strategically and bring the people giving the money to the table to make decisions,” she said. “We see greater engagement with our donors and volunteers when they’re more involved with where their gift is going.” 

Members of Women United. Submitted photo.

When asked about the goals for the next 20 years of the program, Wulfekuhle said there’s not a specific dollar amount in mind, but rather the knowing that real progress has been made. 

More money is always more money, but the need for affordable, quality child care is not going away, she said. “But wouldn’t it be nice to say there isn’t a need for us? We’re in business because of the need.” 

Wulfekuhle said she wants Women United to continue having a strong presence in the community, and would like to join forces with other women’s groups in the community to create stronger working partnerships. 

“We’re excited to be a piece of the puzzle supporting the child care crisis that’s happening in our community right now,” Wulfekuhle said. “We’re not solving it, but we’re trying to do our best to support the centers, keep them open and be there for the families that need it the most.” 

The membership level for Women United begins at $1,000 per year. More information about Women United can be found at the United Way of Central Iowa website.