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NewsMakers 2021: Shannon Starkey-Taylor is early childhood education guru, super-mom and more

By Judy Clabes
NKyTribune editor

Shannon Starkey-Taylor is the go-to guru of early childhood education, the super-mom of advocacy for high quality childcare, and the high-powered CEO of an ever-growing organization of individuals who share her passion for the well-being of children.

She takes her work home — to what she laughingly calls her own child care center there. As a relatively new mom to four adopted (and adorable) girls, she calls on everything she knows about early childhood — with jam on its face and peanut butter in its hair. Add Wonder Woman to her list of pseudonyms just for getting to the office in the mornings.

Shannon and Jeff

Shannon and her husband, Jeff, adopted four siblings whom they fostered — Chelsea, now 7 and a second grader, Neve, 6, a kindergartener, Jasmine, 4, and Hailey, 3. They had hoped for children of their own, but despite prayers and fertility treatments, Shannon accepted “the classic void of not being a parent.” Until the opportunity came in a nice bundled package of four.

“They are the blessing of our lives,” she says.

Shannon grew up in a home with three adopted siblings, and her aunt and uncle were long-time foster parents. She said there was somebody new at every family gathering and it was “just how we rolled.” She was comfortable with blended families and now she has one of her own. As older new parents, she and Jeff are happily redefining their view of the future.

“We cause commotion anywhere we go, in a good way,” Shannon said. “People often ask if the girls are triplets or quadruplets because they are so close in age. Things can get crazy, but somehow it all works. When our daughters were placed with us to foster in 2017, I had just become CEO of Children, Inc. If I had mapped out the timeline of my life, I probably would have spaced things out more widely. In hindsight, though, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

She couldn’t be happier. Add fostering and adoption to her advocacy list.

Shannon took over Children Inc. when founder Rick Hulefeld decided to step back in 2017. He and his wife, Mary, had built the organization into a force to be reckoned with — and Shannon is advancing the ball.

Navigo Prep joined Children Inc., which had extended the continuum to serving youth and embracing college and career prep.

This is the sweet life

Shannon orchestrated a merger with the Cincinnati Early Learning Center that put two nonprofits dedicated to children under one big, powerful umbrella that has greatly expanded its reach to a focus on the whole family. The merged entity became Learning Grove with Shannon as its CEO — and it continues to grow. It currently manages Early Learning Centers around the region and has put in training programs for early childhood educators. She has teamed with the Prichard Committee on a major “family engagement” initiative. She is currently the Chair for the Nonprofits for Social Justice. She created the Consortium for Resilient Young Children and is always looking for productive collaborations. And she has fresh objectives for strengthening early childhood professionals and expanding employer-sponsored childcare.

The primary goal of Learning Grove is to nurture lifelong success. “We do this by offering cradle-to-career services,” Shannon said. “We offer everything from home visitation for prenatal moms to college and career coaching for older students.”

Everyone at Learning Grove is connected to a strong root system of 40 years of combined organizational experience. The organization cultivates the success of children and families through the interconnectedness of its people and the depth of its learning services.

“We truly appreciate everyone who brings their talent, time, and effort to Learning Grove,” Shannon said. “We couldn’t do what we do without each one of them.” 

If it’s best for children, she’s on it. She loves “growing programs and growing people” and is always open to ways “to make it better.”

“Shannon is the right leader for Learning Grove,” said Mike Hammons, vice president of advocacy for the organization. “She embodies the values that Rick and Mary Hulefeld instilled in the organization many years ago but brings her own unique and extraordinary leadership qualities.

“She’s a visionary – always looking for ways to improve and better serve our families and the community. She’s bold and decisive and an excellent coach. She has nurtured a talented, committed and disciplined team and makes sure we reach beyond what we think we can accomplish. She could run a Fortune 500 company, but her heart is and will always be focused on children and families, especially those in most need.”

Four happy siblings

She finds an inner strength through her faith and her Crossroads Church community.

“I am not afraid to try new ideas,” she said. “And it’s OK to fail.”

Shannon’s successes include:

• With one stronger, united voice Learning Grove, is a powerful advocate in Frankfort, Columbus, and Washington D.C. for the needs of families in our region. A reputation for innovation has become a core competency for the agency.

• NaviGo College and Career Prep has grown to support more students and businesses in our region. One example is the River Cities Project that has created a direct link for high school students at area schools to jobs that are in-demand and needed in our region.

•  During the COVID-19 the organization not only retained staff but expanded new services, offered pandemic child care, and kept children, families and staff safe and learning.

Shannon Starkey-Taylor (Xavier Magazine photo)

• Placing a priority on teachers and putting in place a pay equity study that increased the pay of Early Education Teachers to well above area compensation rates. The agency’s benefits were expanded in meaningful ways, including increasing accessibility to mental health support and offering free child care for its teachers.

• Leading the way on solving the shortage of Early Education Teachers through investing in Teacher Pipeline Development work. Learning Grove currently operates Early Learning Centers at Scarlet Oaks and Cincinnati State to allow for internships, job shadowing, and practicum support for students looking to become teachers and has created a partnership with Gateway Community and Technical College to allow teachers currently working in our classrooms to continue their education through a supportive cohort and instructed by Gateway and Learning Grove staff.

• Increased focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion starting with Learning Grove’s Executive Team and Board and creating a taskforce to build equity throughout the organization.

• Brought a framework into the organization so the impact of children, youth, and families can be monitored and priorities for all employees are clearly set.
Shannon is an empathic, innovative, and impact-driven leader who “stands on the shoulders” of some of the commmunity’s remarkable servant leaders who she credits: Rick Hulefeld of Children, Inc., Tim Hanner of NaviGo, Patti Gleason of Cincinnati Early Learning Centers, and Marcia Simmons of Visions Early Learning Center.

“I am driven by inspirational leaders who came before me,” she says. “I see myself as a conductor — conducting here, conducting there — with a great slate of talent working hard to make things happen.”

If we stay focused, she believes, we can all have that wonderful balance in our lives — personal and professional.

And, in the end, children will have brighter futures.

You can also support the nonprofit NKyTribune with your tax-deductible contribution here. Through the end of the year, your contribution will be matched by NewsMatch and our sponsors.

Learning Grove’s annual fundraiser is Saturday. To bid on auction items or to donate, check it out.

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