In the community

Poe’s career defined by a focus on children and early learning

VALE – Kelly Poe cares about kids.
If she wanted to – and she certainly does not, she’ll tell you – Poe could point to a host of titles she’s earned over her long career. He co-workers and managers would surely point to her leadership and determination and focus.
But she doesn’t want to talk about any of that.
Instead, she wants to talk about kids and parents and the value of educating young minds to create a foundation for success.
Poe will retire as the longtime director of early learning at the Malheur Education Service District at the end of December, putting the exclamation point on more than 20 years of public service. She oversees programs in Malheur, Baker and Wallowa Counties.
Poe began her public service with the Malheur County Commission on Children and Families in 2003. After the commission was disbanded by the state, she went to work for the education service district
“I worked to create the first application for regional early learning hubs for the region,” said Poe.
She initially worked as the director of community-based services for the district “because we were focusing on more general population instead of just early childhood,” she said. “I became director of early learning in 2013.”
For Poe, the early learning job was a good fit.
“I’ve always cared about children, especially small children,” said Poe.
Early learning hubs connect parents and young children with a host of services – such as high-quality day care, home visits, literacy programs and parent education – with a goal of preparing children for school.
“Our measurement is, are they ready for school?” said Poe.
Another important piece of early learning, said Poe, is parent involvement to create “stable, attached families.”
“We also want schools to be ready for kids,” said Poe.
“Being ready for school” is more than just backpacks and pencils and crayons. Young children, said Poe, must also be prepared mentally. Ideally that means young children are familiar with books, are easy to deal with and are ready to learn.
Poe said at one time children reached kindergarten prepared.
“When I first started at the commission on children and families, I remember seeing a lot of children arrive at kindergarten equipped, ready. They didn’t need a preschool because they grew up on farms and ranches. In those situations, they learn a lot of life skills,” said Poe.
Subtly, over time, that changed, said Poe.
“Something happened. I can’t tell you what happened. But children are not showing up to kindergarten equipped. So, the need for caregivers, people who are getting degrees in early childhood, are needed,” said Poe.
Poe said she believes she has “facilitated the conversation about” the need for early childhood education. She did that by a boots-on-the-ground approach.
“I learned by talking and seeing what people were doing in the community and then bringing those people together to try to support them,” said Poe.
Poe considers herself a “community builder.”
“I instigate conversations. I ask the community what do you want to do for your youngest members? We do better by the children if we have high-quality preschools with those three- to five-year-old’s then you could do in high school as far as brain development,” said Poe.
Early learning, said Poe, is one of the most important building blocks for a person.
“I think if we want to make our world a better place, we have to address the needs of our youngest members. We have to. Because you can’t throw solutions at problems after it is too late,” said Poe.
Poe said “parents and our community are beginning to understand how critical and important early childhood learning is.”
Poe said sometimes parents believe they just need to get their children to kindergarten and “they’ll be OK.”
“But the truth is that time that the baby has with a parent or a child care provider is the brain building time that will be with them the rest of their lives,” said Poe.
Married and the mother of a son and daughter, Poe grew up in Payette.
Her daughter, Sarah, is the Malheur County Health Department director.
Her son, Andrew, is a surveyor.
After she married her husband, Dave, who worked as a plumber, the couple moved around a lot – from Twin Falls to Portland to Seattle.
The couple returned to the local area in 1995.
Poe, 62, said her early life growing up in Payette proved to be crucial to her as an adult.
“I can tell you that the class I went through school with was probably why I have the character and values I have because the families of my peers were just really healthy families,” said Poe.
Her early life in Payette was “very positive.”
“The class of kids I went through school with were incredible,” said Poe.
Growing up in Payette was also fun, she said, especially when she learned she carried a special talent.
“When I realized I was a good runner that I had a talent, that I had something I could do well, it really surprised me,” said Poe.
Poe said motivated by “love, hope and faith.”
“I get up every day because I need to love somebody and I am so hopeful things will be better. I want people to be treated well. I want people to fight hate with love,” said Poe.
Once she retires, she wants to focus on her work with Dolly Patron’s Imagination Library, a free book gifting program. Parents who sign up their children for the program get free books in the mail from birth until they begin school.
“It is a way to show good and kindness through books,” said Poe.
Poe said she usually arrives early and stays late at her job and that overall her work has been rewarding.
“I get to work with people who love kids. I get to work with people who say all the time, what is good for kids?” said Poe.
Poe said she will miss her job.
“I think I will miss the kinds of challenges where someone, having an idea, says, let’s do it,” said Poe.
Yet she said it is time for someone else to fill her role.
“I think it is important when people know when it is time to pass the baton,” said Poe.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].

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