PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Damaris Alvarado-Rodriguez and her family moved from Brooklyn, New York, to Philadelphia after the 9/11 attacks. Expecting a place of refuge, the minority family encountered some challenges with neighbors struggling to embrace the new diversity.
Alvarado-Rodriguez says that's where her advocacy journey began. Nearly 20 years later, she owns a couple of her early learning centers in South Philly, which function as more than child care providers for the diverse families in her community.
"I [wear] many hats during this COVID time: mother, wife, friend, advocate, leader, principal, director, finance person, nurse. It’s been such a crazy journey," she said.
She prides herself on having an inclusive environment for students and staff at the Children's Playhouse centers (2501 South Marshall St. and 1426 West Passyunk Ave.).
"We have a lot of Hispanic undocumented refugees that come to us. ... I created an environment that’s owned by a Hispanic minority woman, that all the teachers are from everywhere. I have a melting pot and that’s what I love about my facility."
That diversity influences her holistic approach to family care.
"There’s been so much trauma within our organization, children and staff members, losing loved ones to COVID," she said.
Pennsylvania child care centers were allowed to reopen in the fall after they were deemed essential businesses.
Alvarado-Rodriguez says Children's Playhouse has never been more essential to the families they serve. Through partnerships with the School District of Philadelphia, the Mayor's Office, and other community groups and leaders, she has helped bring critical resources to what she refers to as her families.
"They can’t even collect an employment check. We went out, we had some food banks. We started feeding these families every week. Diaper bags, anything I can get my hands, on we did that."
When the community needed COVID-19 tests and vaccines, she said, "we started advocating for that to happen. It’s there now. We got one two blocks away from us."
A COVID-19 vaccination clinic started up in the neighborhood on Friday. She says having one nearby is essential for community members who are not comfortable leaving their homes or who don’t know how to access a vaccine appointment online.
"I’ve been on every call with Dr. Farley," she said. "I've been everywhere, saying our community needs this. Some of them can't leave our communities. Elderly folks, they can't leave."
She says the recent rise in incidents of violence and intolerance toward Asian Americans has also made some of her families less comfortable leaving their homes.
"A lot of our Black and brown folks were not being vaccinated. The data shows it. I want them to be able to feel that relief too. They, too, have grandparents that they haven’t seen for a year," she said.
Alvarado-Rodriguez says she is proud of her gains in racial and social equity in the city, but the mission continues.
"[Early childhood education] teachers are superheroes. We are essential employees as well, and they should be compensated as such," she said.
One of her centers has several tuition-free openings for children ages 6 weeks to 5 years old.