To Build the Brains of Every Young Child in New York, Start with Parents & Caregivers

How FUEL for 50 is making NYC an early learning metropolis, one community at a time

Five years ago, the Children’s Defense Fund’s Marian Wright Edelman and I celebrated the role of parents and caregivers as brain builders. In that moment, we called upon the philanthropic sector to utilize available resources to ensure that every family has an equitable opportunity to learn and grow in the hopes of supporting the trajectory of an entire generation of children in New York City.

We were excited then about the commitment of Robin Hood’s Fund for Early Learning (FUEL) — a $50 million initiative aimed at promoting the early brain development of New York City’s 150,000 infants and toddlers living in poverty — to bring us closer to that vision. Over the last four years, we have forged partnerships with community-based organizations and the city agencies that support young children, advanced research to better understand what works best for New York City families, and invested in promising programs to reach more than 50,000 children by 2022.

And today, I am proud to see FUEL building upon that mission with FUEL for 50, a new initiative to celebrate the organizations that support the parents and caregivers of children ages 3 and under living in poverty in New York City.

Science shows that what happens in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life significantly determines how he or she will learn, grow, and succeed long-term. From snuggles to read-aloud stories to baths in the sink, small moments of engagement build a child’s brain and set a strong foundation for life. For thousands of families living in poverty, this important phase of parenting is made even harder by systemic injustices that threaten the time and security required for healthy development.

If we want to build a brighter future for every child, we have to take a holistic approach and support the families that provide care during the earliest and most critical stage of children’s learning and development. Simply reducing the stress on a parent can make room for healthier, more engaged relationships with their kids.

This is why FUEL for 50 is putting out the call for applications for any New York City nonprofit organization that supports parents and caregivers of young children. Any group that supports vulnerable parents and caregivers are, by extension, helping the young children in their care. No matter what form this work takes, each of you is a brain builder. Maybe you’re an informal childcare provider whose services allow parents to go to work or finish their degree. You could be feeding families or providing mental health services. You could be offering legal advice to keep families in their homes or to reunite immigrant families. Or sheltering moms and kids who have fled domestic abuse.

New York City’s vibrant nonprofit sector is already doing incredible work to support families with young children, but philanthropic dollars don’t always reach the small community-based organizations serving families parenting in poverty. These trusted groups inherently and intimately understand the issues facing their community. They have the wisdom to know what has to be done.

Through FUEL for 50, Robin Hood will award 50 such organizations $25,000 in no-strings-attached funding, access to workshops and support from early childhood experts, and an opportunity for more than $1 million in additional funding through 2023.

The simplest of supports can help build children’s brains in their earliest years, charting the course for a lifetime of learning. FUEL for 50 will elevate 50 community-led, parent-focused programs and take a step toward a New York City that gives every child a chance at their best possible start in life.

When we lift the community that is serving as a scaffold for our youngest neighbors, we are ensuring a better future — and New York City — for all of us.

Jackie Bezos is the President and Co-Founder of the Bezos Family Foundation.

Fighting poverty in New York City since 1988.