By Jennifer Myers
Twenty-five years ago there was not one single licensed child care provider in the city’s densely-populated, heavily immigrant Acre neighborhood.
Anita Moeller, then a UMass Lowell student interning for the Coalition for a Better Acre, realized the need both for child care that would allow women to enter the workforce, as well as an avenue to empower immigrant and other women to start their own small businesses.
She launched Acre Family Child Care with 10 women. Today, the organization boasts 54 home-based family child care providers caring for nearly 400 children every day, including weekend and overnight care to cater to parents working 2nd and 3rd shift.
As AFCC celebrates their 25th anniversary, it is time to blow the lid off the organization called by some “the best kept secret in the city”; a non-profit that has brought economic stability to and made the American dream a reality for countless Lowell families.
Child care providers and clients are a microcosm of the city itself, displaying the richness of ethnic diversity on which the city prides itself, including those from the city’s newest immigrant groups from Burma and Iraq, as well as women from Cambodia, the Dominican Republic and the United States.
May Rian was born in Burma, a member of the Karen ethnic group. She and her family were forced to flee their village, fearing for their lives.
“We found refuge by the mountain for more than a year,” she told me through a translator when I first met her more than 4 years ago.
They were discovered and chased by troops. One of the villagers, a mother with four children, was raped and murdered.
May Rian and her family spent years on the move, from refugee camp to refugee camp, terrified that the military would shell each new “home,” as splinter groups of the Karen resistance signed peace agreements with the military government.
Her husband, Shwebah, lost his leg in one of the camps.
“I don’t want to cry,” he said through a translator that day in March 2009, when asked to share his story, his eyes filled with tears.
May Rian and Shwebah were awarded refugee status in 2006, shortly after the U.S. government loosened immigration rules allowing the resettlement of thousands of Karen refugees living in Thai camps. They had previously been denied asylum because of their support of the Karen National Union, the opposition fighting the Burmese government.
They arrived in Lowell on April 30, 2008.
They were free, but in a foreign country with no understanding of the language or customs.
She found a job as a farmer, but wanted more. She had taught music, reading and writing in her village. Her passion was working with young people.
A friend told her about a program aimed at assisting women to start their own home-based child care businesses. The program, based on“Benchmarks,” a curriculum created by Acre Family Child Care, was made possible through a partnership with the International Institute’s Lowell office with funding from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
May Rian was the first graduate to start her own family child care business. She cares for four children and uses the Jumpstart early literacy program, as well as sharing the stories she told and games she played with her students in Burma.
“I am looking forward to growing and improving my program,” May Rian told ACFF through a translator. “Acre has been a big help for me!”
In addition to home-based child care locations, which are monitored by AFCC staff, they also offer transportation for children to and from the sites, parent education, family support services and early childhood training programs in multiple languages throughout the year.
Acre Family Child Care is also able to boast of at least one celebrity client.
When Leymah Gbowee, the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner,was visiting Lowell from Liberia, she needed child care. Acre was there.
Leymah was the Greeley Scholar for Peace and Justice at UMass Lowell for a month, but would not have been able to come without access to child care.
On Tuesday night, members of the Acre Family Child Care family filled the City Council Chamber where Mayor Patrick Murphy proclaimed the week of October 14 – 19 “Acre Family Child Care” week in the city of Lowell.
For more information about AFCC visit the display in the lobby of City hall or www.acrefamily.org