Social Justice Game Changer: Karen Willis

by Josh Cohen

Name: Karen Willis

Game Honored: Orlando Magic vs. Atlanta Hawks (3/3/21)

Background: Research shows that 90 percent of a child’s brain is developed by the age of 5. That tells us that it is critical for kids to enter kindergarten with the foundation necessary to reach their full potential.

Through Willis’ leadership, knowledge, experience and innovativeness, there are more young children in Orange County getting that essential early learning.

Since 2007, Willis has been the chief executive officer at the Early Learning Coalition of Orange County (ELCOC), which works to connect families and preschool programs to resources that provide every child with equal educational opportunities. Learn more about ELCOC here.

Making a positive impact on youth has always been near and dear to Willis’ heart. It was when the Florida Legislature enacted the School Readiness Act in 1999, which consolidated each of the early childhood education and childcare programs into one integrated program of school readiness services, that she decided to focus her career on early learning.

Seeing children flourish in school and develop their passions and skills is incredibly fulfilling for Willis, who served as the executive director at the Early Learning Coalition in Seminole County, a position she held for 3 ½ years, before transitioning over to Orange County. It’s just as gratifying, she says, when Early Learning Coalition’s employees rise up as well and thrive in their careers.

“It’s tremendously satisfying,” she said. “It’s very rewarding and it’s what keeps you doing this work. The opportunity for our organization to be recognized for the good work that we do is very fulfilling.”

Willis has earned many accolades for the work she’s done in the community and for the enormous influence she’s had on local youth, teachers, parents and others.

She was inducted into the Florida Family Child Care Home Association Advocate Hall of Fame in 2012, named one of Orlando Business Journal’s Women Who Mean Business and the Women’s Executive Council’s Women of Achievement in Education in 2019, and was recognized as one of the 10 People Who Make Orlando a Better Place to Live in 2020.

Willis currently serves as chair emeritus of the Central Florida Regional Committee for the Children’s Movement of Florida and is a past chair of the Orange County Children’s Cabinet. She is a current member of the Orange County League of Women Voters, Women’s Executive Council, the Association of Early Learning Coalitions, the West Orlando Chamber of Commerce, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida, the African American Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida, East Orlando Chamber of Commerce, and Orlando, Inc.

During her tenure, the ELCOC has been awarded Central Florida Urban League’s 2019 Cornerstone Award for Youth Empowerment and the City of Orlando’s 2019 Community Builder Award.

Recent Major Accomplishment: The Orlando Economic Partnership, which helps community leaders collaborate to build and strengthen the region’s assets and businesses, hosted Leadership Orlando 2.0 not long ago. Among the participants of the program was Willis, also a graduate of Leadership Brevard, Leadership Seminole, Leadership Law, Leadership West Orange and the first Leadership Orlando.

From the ranks of more than 5,000 alumni of the original Leadership Orlando, Willis was one of 30 chosen for version 2.0 to dive deeper into the issue of social and economic mobility and come up with potential long-term solutions. What needs to change at the system level was the million dollar question and together they brainstormed some incredible ideas that Willis says could make a lasting difference.

“I was very proud of our group that we did not stray away from a difficult challenge,” she said. “That was very rewarding to be a part of that group and be on the ground floor.”

The findings of the group has led Willis to implement strategies at ELCOC to combat structural racism. Research shows that children as young as three months old are able to discern the racial characteristics of their primary caregiver with other people of the same racial characteristics. So by age 5, children are already demonstrating racially focused beliefs.

“It’s the books that we provide to children. It’s how we talk to children. It’s what’s on TV. It’s the things that we don’t say to children. Children are not color blind,” Willis said. “We are looking internal to our organization to see what we can do in the area of early childhood education with our coaching and the way in which we deliver our services to be sure that we are not perpetuating racism and in our community inadvertently because the research is very strong in terms of how children learn their racial beliefs.”

Working with the Magic: The Magic and ELCOC have worked together on many projects over the years. One of them is Baskets for Books, which the Magic and Florida Blue recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of a few months ago. For every point made by the Magic at every home game, one book is donated to the ELCOC. Since program inception in 2010, more than 54,000 total books have been donated to the Early Learning Coalition. Nearly 4,000 books were donated last season (2019-20) with the help of Houghton Mifflin & Harcourt Publishing Company.

In celebration of the 10th anniversary, the Magic and Florida Blue teamed up to create a children's book, STUFF & SUNNY Take Flight, which was distributed virtually over the summer to Orange County Public Schools' (OCPS) elementary school youth, Magic season ticket holders, premium partners and through the Magic's eNews subscribers. The two also donated water bottles to the ELC book recipients.

The Magic were also the founding partner in ELCOC’s Infant/Toddler Child Development Associate (CDA) program, which provides 80 hours of specific infant/toddler training to support early childhood teachers, guiding them through intensive age-appropriate learning experiences as they work toward obtaining their national CDA credential.

“If it had not been for the Magic we would not have over 150 graduates,” Willis said. “People in early childhood programs with their base credentials specifically focused on infant and toddler work, nobody else was doing that work in the community and the Magic stepped up and funded that for us. It has been a phenomenal partnership and to be recognized in this way for the work our organization is doing is phenomenal.”

About the Program: As part of the Magic and Steve Clifford’s continuing efforts toward social justice reform, he created the Social Justice Game Changer program to honor one local leader who has made a difference in the realm of social justice issues. A cause close to his heart, Clifford is extremely active in programs that support equality and justice for all people in the Central Florida community.

Through this program, Clifford looks to put the spotlight on those continuously doing the hard work, day in and day out, fighting for sustainable change. As part of his program, one person is selected and honored each game. The honorees are given tickets, provided by Clifford, to the game and featured in-arena on the Magic Vision screen at center court.

“The purpose is to honor and to celebrate so many of the people in the Orlando community who are fighting for change and who commit their lives to making Orlando a better place,” Clifford said. “It’s just a way to celebrate them, what they stand for, and what they do for our community.”

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