Shining Through Crisis

2020 BOLD Game Changer: Nicolee Mensing

In early spring, NHSA named 14 individuals as 2020 BOLD Prize winners in recognition of their extraordinary leadership in response to the unique challenges they encountered in 2020… Over the course of this summer, NHSA is sharing insights from each BOLD Prize Winner about leading through unprecedented times and overcoming uncertainty and adversity to support both staff and the children and families Head Start serves.

Leading staff and families through concurrent crises with consistency, creativity, and compassion with acute prioritization of families’ physical needs, staff’s comfort, and community partnerships makes Nicolee Mensing a 2020 BOLD Game Changer.

Nicolee Mensing is the Senior Director of Head Start & Early Head Start at Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties in St. Paul, Minnesota, which supports 1,400 infants, toddlers, and preschoolers in home-based and center-based services. They serve a diverse immigrant and refugee population, with more than 40 languages represented.

In 2020, due to their proximity to the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests calling for racial justice, Nicolee and her team supported children and their families through multiple challenges and changes at once. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Nicolee immediately identified food assistance as a primary need in their community. Over 14 weeks, they held 42 food and supply distribution events, serving 13,524 meals to Head Start and Early Head Start children. In addition, they partnered with a local nonprofit to distribute over 1,000 boxes of culturally responsive food for all members of their Head Start community. When their main building, which was the primary food distribution site, sustained considerable damage during protests, Nicolee and her determined team did not miss a beat in continuing to get food to families. When the building was deemed unsafe for occupancy, the team bought additional coolers, set up outside, and distributed food to 200 families, just like every other week. Not only was it critical to get families the nutrition support on which they depended, but Nicolee knew that in the midst of two significant crises in their community, it was important for families to see Head Start as a pillar of strength, support, and a light that they could count on.

At the same time, Nicolee was planning to bring children back into classrooms as quickly and safely as possible. She and her team spent two months creating a “Return from COVID” plan, opening eight Head Start classrooms in July, which set them up for success when they scaled up to 42 classrooms in September. The smaller summer program allowed them to figure out how to implement new health protocols and gave staff the opportunity to feel more comfortable returning after they watched their coworkers remain safe over the summer.

In her own words:

“One quote that has resonated with me during this pandemic is ‘“…it’s better to build a longer table than a taller fence.’” One thing I have learned in this pandemic is that sometimes during a crisis, it is easier to put up a wall, but building a table, and making sure others have a seat at that table leads to better outcomes. This philosophy will guide our program as we move into 2021 and look to expand center-based Early Head Start services, enhance partnerships with our child care and school-based partnerships, and continue to improve the quality of our Head Start services for the children, families, and community we serve.”

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Through all of 2020’s turbulence, Head Start leaders boldly faced the challenges and lived up to an unprecedented level of extraordinary leadership. The National Head Start Association’s 2020 BOLD was created to recognize, celebrate, and reward this bold leadership.

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National Head Start Association

National Head Start Association

NHSA is a nonprofit organization committed to the belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in life.

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