First 5’s Heidi Emberling on the Tools Children Need to Flourish

PUBLISHED OCT 31, 2022 12:44 P.M.
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First 5’s Heidi Emberling says, “The biggest issue facing the childcare field right now is the teacher shortage.”

First 5’s Heidi Emberling says, “The biggest issue facing the childcare field right now is the teacher shortage.”   First 5 Santa Clara County

Heidi Emberling has been the interim chief program officer at First 5 Santa Clara County since May of this year. In her role, she is responsible for planning, developing and implementing community projects that serve the county’s young children. Among her projects are family-strengthening initiatives, community learning programs, and health and wellness services.

California Local spoke with Emberling to ask her thoughts about the most pressing issues affecting early childhood development and learning in Santa Clara County. She also shared information about some not-so-well-known programs and services offered by First 5.

California Local: As chief program officer, what have you learned about the community and its needs? What are some of the most pressing issues right now?

Heidi Emberling: The biggest issues facing families with young children include access to quality, affordable childcare, and also include access to housing and healthy nutrition. Family needs are all-inclusive, especially in Santa Clara County, which is a high-cost county to live in. We particularly need to pay attention to low-income families here in terms of providing the support they need to access safe, stable housing, medical benefits and quality, affordable childcare.

How does First 5 determine the neighborhoods or areas with the greatest risk for poor child-developmental outcomes in Santa Clara County? 

There are a lot of needs assessments done in the county to identify areas of high need. We try to focus on those areas while also keeping in mind that there are hidden pockets of need in other areas of the county. It's a complex process in terms of the identification of families in need, especially if they're masked in a ZIP code that doesn't get a lot of attention.

What is First 5’s role in helping families and children with high needs?

We try to look at the needs of our partner organizations as well. We have 27 family resource centers throughout the county. What are the Family Resource Center community workers reporting to us about families’ needs? What are families coming in the door asking for, looking for, and needing support for? Then we talk to our county partners. What are they hearing from families? Are they able to access county resources?

Our role is to elevate the needs of children and families with young children so that they can access the services and supports they need to create environments in which children can thrive.

You said earlier that access to childcare is a big issue in Santa Clara County. What are some barriers families may face, and what can be done about this?

Across the state, childcare is always a need for families. Access to affordable, quality childcare is what enables families to go back to work. During the pandemic, we lost 300 family childcare home providers. And I think one of our biggest tasks now is going to be to fill that need by creating programs that support the creation of childcare, helping potential educators get through the licensing process, and helping existing centers expand.

The biggest issue facing the childcare field right now is the teacher shortage. There's a teacher shortage in K-12 that many people know about. But many people do not know that it's even more catastrophic in early care and education. One of the big initiatives that First 5 is working on right now is early childhood education workforce development. How do we create an entryway into the field?

How is First 5 helping childcare workers find stable union-protected and district-backed jobs? How does the organization work to increase diversity in the early education field?

We have a Quality Matters equity initiative where we're helping to position our diverse early-learning professionals in education jobs. You need a credential to teach in a K-12 classroom, and you don't need one to teach in a preschool classroom. That's the biggest barrier for our early-learning professionals to get higher-paying, benefited, union-protected jobs. We're looking at how we can help them achieve that credential so that they can be eligible for those jobs.

Where can families find information for low to no-cost childcare?

A useful website [provided by Santa Clara County Childcare Resource & Referral Program] is a childcare finding portal where families can look for family childcare or center-based care by ZIP code, by small versus large, and in-home versus center criteria. Anybody looking for low- or no-cost childcare can learn how to access all the services and supports for childcare and early learning.

Public investment is pretty low for children's early development. Why is that and what impact does that have on families?

Wow, that's a question I've pondered my entire career. So, there are publicly funded K-12 school systems, but there is no publicly funded infrastructure for early childcare and education. There's a compilation of early education services, there are center-based preschools, family childcare home providers, friend-family networks of loosely connected people who are raising children in the community, transitional kindergarten programs and the universal preschool effort, but there's no central office that's coordinating all those services like at a school district. It's very difficult to make systems change in a community that is just a wide range of services.

Oftentimes, children's health is a reflection of the community. We need to look at the impact [of the lack of public investment] on children. It's particularly important in those first years because 90% of a child's brain is developed by the age of 5. In those early years, we have an opportunity to create an environment in which children can thrive.

In addition to early childhood education, children’s health is also a core part of your organization’s mission. How is First 5 addressing health issues in Santa Clara County?

Children's development depends a lot on the health community. The two big things that come to mind are lead and pesticides. There's an active community trying to remedy the damage caused by the Reid-Hillview Airport, which has impacted the water system and various other things in our communities.

There's also been an effort to create Magical Bridge playgrounds that are accessible to all children, particularly those with disabilities. There are additional barriers in terms of accessing community resources, services, and childcare for children with disabilities.

I saw that free period products are being offered through First 5. Could you tell me about this service and other benefits that people may not know about?

This program was made possible by a grant that supported period products for parents. And it was amazing that we could partner with our family resource centers for the distribution of these products.

We're always happy to pivot to the needs of the community. During COVID, we partnered with the Department of Public Health to distribute COVID test kits. We did distributions for cleaning supplies, gloves, masks, and child-size and adult-size masks. We’ve had ongoing diaper distributions and formula distributions. We worked with WIC [Women, Infants & Children Program] through MediCal and other partners in the community to just continually talk to parents about the needs they have to see how we can fill those gaps.

How does First 5 make sure children at or near age 5 are supported and ready to transition to public school?

We're always working on ways in which we can strengthen alignment between early education and public school education. Universal transitional kindergarten is an area we are partnering with closely because there are 4-year-olds in both worlds—in preschool and in transitional kinder classrooms.

We would love to see more partnerships among those educators because preschool teachers have been working with 4-year-olds forever. The kindergarten teachers are just starting to enter into that world. So how do we bring those two systems together and align efforts so that we're creating healthy environments in which children can thrive?

Where can people find more information about all these programs, services and resources?

If you go to, you'll see that there is a link to a parents website as well. And on that website, there are resources, events and activities from all of our 27 family resource centers throughout Santa Clara County. You can access low- or no-cost childcare, diaper distributions, and baby formula. I would urge people to look at all of the different offerings on the website because there are so many.

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