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Khalea Neal and Mariah Garner have had a unique view into children’s lives during the pandemic. As teachers at two of Dubuque’s most racially and economically diverse schools, Prescott Elementary and Thomas Jefferson Middle School, they’ve seen how the pandemic has worsened barriers that families face, setting children up for long-term learning challenges.

“Our families have a lot of obstacles to tackle before academics, such as the ability to navigate technology, language barriers and overall consistency in the home,” they told us over the summer. “Many students come to school with a lot of struggles in their lives, and we’re helping them cope with those challenges while also teaching them.”

Mariah and Khalea’s experiences underscore a major challenge our community faces: Our minority families and families living in generational poverty have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus — its health implications and the economic realities.


In short, our families are hurting. If we don’t take action now, children will feel the impact of learning loss and trauma of the virus long into the future. No matter how well resourced, schools alone cannot solve these problems. That means children’s learning and development are the responsibility of all of us.

At the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, we work in the world of philanthropy, a word that translates to “love for humanity.” This love shines through Vision to Learn, which brings free eye exams and glasses to children in Dubuque and beyond; through our Every Child Reads, where summer adventure programs ignite young excitement around literacy and education; and when a minority student, who never imagined going to college, has their life changed because of our work with the Dubuque College Access Network.

Because of this love, we have a relentless focus on ensuring our youth — the future of our community — can succeed in school and in life. It’s why we work with local organizations to holistically address children’s needs caused and worsened by the pandemic.

The barriers to learning go beyond curriculum. How can teachers like Khalea and Mariah tend to the social-emotional needs of children returning to an uncertain school environment? How can parents create a home atmosphere conducive to remote learning and positive development? How do we ensure families have access to internet and other resources?

The answer is to work collaboratively and lead with love. We need to build a community culture that embraces the fact that learning happens

everywhere. It means reimagining places and spaces as learning opportunities. Laundromats and libraries, hospitals and clinics, family courts and bus stops, grocery stores and playgrounds: Any place where families gather is full of possibilities.

This is the approach behind a new project rolling out in coming months. Together, St. Mark Youth Enrichment, the Dubuque Dream Center and Every Child Reads partners will focus on building awareness of and expanding access to resources around social-emotional learning and trauma-informed care. The goal is to ensure everyone who impacts children’s lives understands how to best help children learn and grow.

That’s what loving humanity looks like. The world is chaotic today, and children feel the weight of this chaos as much as, and perhaps more than, adults. In 40 years of being a parent myself and building strong communities, I’ve learned the way to face a crisis is to step up and tackle the issue.

Like a parent would do for their own children, you love, you commit and you advocate. It’s the approach people like Khalea and Mariah have taken in their schools, it’s the approach our community has taken during this pandemic, and it’s the approach we need to take together to help our children through this difficult time — and long into the future.

Van Milligen is president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque. Learn more about the organization at