Tonya Graff chose early childcare as a profession so she could make a meaningful difference in a child’s life.preschool children in masks

“Early childcare has been the most rewarding experience, personally and professionally,” said Graff, owner of six Adventure Academy child development centers in the Lincoln area. “Then you hit the pandemic and the toughest time possible – for families, children, childcare staff – and you wonder how you’re going to make it.”

What kept her afloat?  She sends her gratitude to Lincoln Littles and $500,000 of bonus dollars for childcare available through a Community Block Development Grant – money provided through a public-private partnership with the mayor, City of Lincoln and Lincoln Littles – money specifically aimed at easing the impact of COVID on Lincoln families with young children.

“I believe in my heart, with my whole heart, that without these funds we would not have been able to keep our doors open,” Graff said.  “This money allowed us to stay open and gave our families some relief, some time to come up for air.”

Of course, this is not just about keeping childcare centers open – it is about keeping a community open, she noted.  “We care for the children of nurses and health care workers, the children of people who work at service stations and grocery stores.  Childcare centers are essential to keeping a community operational.”

Graff stresses that she has three goals for children under her care: “I want them to be safe, to be learning, and to be nurtured … everything they get at home with their parents. Obviously, that has been a challenge over the pandemic to make sure we keep doing just that.”

But Lincoln Littles has been a lifeline through hard times, Graff said.  “They connected us to grant funding.  They answered our questions.  They kept us informed.  They supported us.  They fought for us. And I cannot tell you how huge this was, how these dollars saved the day for so many childcare providers, moms and dads, their kids.”

Families continue to live right on the edge right now, Graff says.   “They have had a tough time over the past couple years.  They lost jobs.  They had hours cut.  They were forced to miss work for weeks, even months, if they contracted COVID or their children got sick.”

And that meant they were forced to make impossible budgetary choices, such as: Pay their electric bill or pay their childcare.

“Our parents are truly struggling, but funding from the Community Block Development Grant took them off the roller coaster, at least for a while,” she said.  “It also helped centers like mine avoid closing our doors – and avoid raising our prices.”

She wants to express her appreciation to the community: “I’m so very thankful for all your support and for this grant that you have given us. It has made all the difference.”

Anne Brandt, executive director of Lincoln Littles, underscores that gratitude.

“It feels like our community rallied around our families,” she said.  “The mayor and the City of Lincoln were generous in their support of this grant money, and the timing was perfect.  The money came at a time of great need.”

Further, the pandemic continues to impact families of young children, according to Suzanne Schneider, associate director for Lincoln Littles.  “It seems like the rest of the world is moving on, but please remember:  School-age children could wear masks, but not our toddlers.  And vaccines for our youngest population have lagged behind.”

Undoubtedly, the pandemic shook the landscape of early childcare, Schneider said, but she believes childcare providers and their families have used the grant money efficiently and effectively.

To date, $464,000 of the $500,000 has been awarded through the Block Grant childcare program, providing help for:

  • 39 programs.
  • 212 families.
  • 282 children.

Graff does caution the community that trials continue.  “Yes, our children and their families are coming back … But the newest challenge is finding staff.  No, I have not raised rates. Our families are still struggling.  But in turn that makes it difficult to pay our employees what they are truly worth.  Staff members at early childcare providers are exhausted.”

And yet, Schneider said, “we maintain and retain quality for early childcare … and our childcare providers have continued to show up, day after day, throughout the pandemic.”


Lincoln Littles is a passionate network of advocates focused on ensuring all children have access to quality early childhood care and education.  The organization emerged from the community’s Prosper Lincoln initiative, coordinated by the Lincoln Community Foundation.