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ACEs Champion: Jameelah Hanif, Solano County, CA, childcare provider, closes doors to protect community during COVID-19 pandemic


When California Governor Gavin Newsom announced on March 16, 2020, that child care providers were essential businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, he left the decision to close to each provider. Jameelah Hanif, owner of Watch Me Grow Child Care in Vallejo, CA, decided to close.

“If it was up to me, I would close down all the child care providers,” she says, to protect herself, her son, and the community she serves.

The child care expert closed her doors despite the fact that her business, which she founded in 2012 and which serves up to 14 children, was the only family child-care home in Solano County to receive a 5-star rating in 2019. That’s also the year that parents and the community voted Watch Me Grow Child Care first place in a poll conducted by the local Times Herald news organization. Hanif also serves as president of the Solano Licensed Family Child Care Association.

In addition to her work and community service, Hanif is a single mother of a seven-year old son, Brandon Johnson.

ImageThe early childhood expert — she earned a degree in early childhood education from Contra Costa College in San Pablo — says her studies focused on violence intervention and counseling. That’s because her own childhood was filled with trauma. And although she didn’t learn about the science of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) until recently, she says she experienced a gamut of ACEs. She grew up in poverty with five other siblings. She experienced child abuse and emotional neglect as the baby girl in the family. Her father was incarcerated twice: once for a year when she was eight, and then during her high school years at Emery High, which she said was particularly hard because she needed his counseling.

She was the first of her siblings to obtain a high school diploma and attend college. When asked what motivated her to go to college, she said that it was all her basketball coaches who saved her, because “they loved me and pushed me to be my best.” From age 11 to her college years, “basketball saved me because of the relationships I had with my coaches,” she says.

One of her coaches in West Oakland, CA, was Keith AlIison, who also coached at Contra Costa College (CCC). He suggested that CCC Head Coach Paul Debolt recruit Hanif while she was still in high school. And he did. Hanif played one year as the starting point-guard for Contra Costa College in 2002-2003, when her team came home from the California state finals as runner-up. Then, Hanif says, “life happened,” and she dropped out of school.

Years later, Hanif was pregnant with Brandon and decided to return to school to finish what she had started, because she wanted to become a role model for other children like herself. At age 34, she not only returned to college, but she also played her second year of college basketball, while continuing as a successful business owner of Watch Me Grow Child Care and a single mother. “If Ican do it, anyone can!” she says.

Between giving birth to Brandon and obtaining her college degree, Hanif overcame severe economic hardships. When her child was only three months old, she went back to work in San Francisco, and then was laid off.

“I had an eviction notice. There was lack of food in my home and my PG&E (utilities) was cut off. I had to apply for emergency food stamps. This was a hard time for me. If I hadn’t taken the college class on Child, Family & Community, I wouldn’t have known about the resources available to me: WIC, PG&E emergency service, and housing support.”

Eventually, she was able to set up her child care service in 2012, with room for eight children, and in 2016 she expanded to 14. She is hoping to eventually open an even larger facility for child care, Watch Me Grow Child & Family Development Center in Vallejo, so that she can reach and serve more children and families.

Hanif learned about ACEs science in 2019, when she attended a talk given by Donielle Prince, an ACEs Connection facilitator. Prince was giving a presentation about ACEs science at a Solano County Local Child Care Planning Council meeting, where Hanif is a former president. When she heard Prince speak, her response was immediate.

“Tears started forming in my eyes as Donielle presented these ACEs indicators,” she recalls. “These are things I had experienced. I was so excited about ACEs, I decided this is information that needs to be out in the communities.”

The term ACEs comes from the groundbreaking CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACE Study), first published in 1998 and comprising more than 70 research papers published over the following 15 years. The research is based on a survey of more than mostly white, middle- and upper-middle class 17,000 adults and was led by Drs. Robert Anda and Vincent Felitti. The study linked 10 types of childhood adversity — such as living with a parent who is mentally ill, has abused alcohol or is emotionally abusive — to the adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. Many other types of ACEs — including racism, bullying, a father being abused, and community violence — have been added to subsequent ACE surveys. (ACEs Science 101; Got Your ACE/Resilience Score?)

The ACE Study, an epidemiological analysis of childhood adversity, is one of the five parts of ACEs science, which also includes how toxic stress from ACEs affects a child’s brain, the short and long-term health effects of toxic stress, the epigenetics of toxic stress (how it’s passed on from generation to generation), and research on resilience, which includes how individuals, organizations, systems and communities can integrate ACEs science to solve our most intractable problems.

Although Hanif hasn’t had ACEs science training and would like to train others on the topic eventually, she knows that understanding ACEs science, Five Protective Factors, and Triple P (the Positive Parenting Program) has made her more intentional with practicing her parenting and child care skills. She’s learned that she has to “reflect on my past, and then accept it to work towards healing.” She also identified the one ACE that has had the most effect on her life: emotional neglect.

As a result of this knowledge, she says she’s developing her emotional intelligence. She says this means she recognizes and accepts her feelings, expresses her feelings appropriately, has a positive outlook, develops effective ways of coping, deals with negative feelings, and manages stressful life events.

What could be more stressful having to close down her child care business for an indefinite period of time? Applying her own resilience techniques, Hanif has a positive outlook about the future.

“I can’t wait to see the good come out of this,” she says. “Child care workers are not valued. We are not paid enough for the job we do. We have the responsibility of raising healthy, well-adjusted children, the next generation. Our job is very serious, and now we are needed. Everyone is depending on us during this crisis.”


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