Dan and Jill Francis have provided preschool scholarships to more than 700 area kids.
by Jan Schlain
From the January, 2018 issue
Dan Francis recalls how stunned the head of Child Care Network was when the couple told her they wanted to give her a check, every year, for $100,000-plus to help secure preschool for children whose parents can't afford it.
"We've always had the philosophy that we have an obligation to give back. So we do," says Dan by phone from their University Commons home. They're originally from Sidney, Ohio, where Jill's parents owned the town newspaper. After Jill and Dan married, Dan joined the business in 1969 and became president soon afterward. It "grew quite rapidly," he says, to about 300 employees with the addition of specialty publications like magazines for coin and stamp collectors. After more than thirty years he retired in 2000. "I just burned out," he says. "Ran out of gas."
Dan's sister was a kindergarten teacher in Sidney for thirty-five years. She would tell the couple about kids who started school unprepared. They found that baffling, Dan says, until she explained that "most kids come with skills; like how to use scissors, how to identify colors, etc. If they don't have any skills, they're behind."
Dan and Jill started learning about preschools. After selling their interest in the family business, they established a Fidelity Charitable Giving Account to support early childhood education.
"It's not rocket science," says Dan. "We started a preschool in Sidney. We gave the [public] school system some money, and they said, 'We'll put it together.'" They offered four classes.
"The teacher who ran it was a super woman. She taught in rougher areas of Dayton, and she knew how to handle kids. None of the families knew where the money came from." But after the couple left Sidney, budgets were cut, and the preschool was cut, too.
The couple retired to Ann Arbor in 2004--it is, they observe, "a very nice place to live." (They have a grown son in Montana and a daughter in Brooklyn, New York.) Once they
settled in, they started looking around at Ann Arbor preschools. "And we ran into CCN," says Dan. He called and spoke to the director at the time, Jenny McAlpine. "She didn't know us from Adam. We said, 'Can we come talk to you?'" CCN had recently lost a chunk of funding from the state, so the Francises were a godsend. "It was smooth from the get-go," says Dan.
CCN serves seven Michigan counties from its Ann Arbor office on Research Park Dr., in space rented from the Center for Independent Living. In the last quarter of 2016, according to current director Annette Sobocinski, 365 Washtenaw County children from 215 families received scholarships at 104 early learning centers and childcare providers. The Francis donations are one of many streams funding CCN's FIRST Family Support Program. "It's a program designed to help at-risk families access high quality childcare," says Sobocinski.
"Child care is very expensive," she says. "We help [parents] pay. Typically, we pay a portion of tuition, depending on their income and financial situation. It's a contract between the family, [CCN], and the childcare provider. We all sign it." The parents choose the providers, but to be eligible for scholarships, Sobocinski says, they have to be "accredited or participate in Great Start to Quality, the state's tiered quality rating system."
A February 2016 press release from Fidelity credited the Francises' donations with helping put 743 low-income children through preschool. Sobocinski says by now it's many more than that. And their donation of $100,000-plus per year continues.
Sobocinski describes the Francises as "wonderful people, down-to-earth, very forward-thinking." Their support, she notes, changes the lives of parents as well as children: "Not only does it help their child access learning, but it helps families maintain employment [or] remain in school."
In addition to scholarships and advice on choosing childcare, CCN has "a lending library, and it is open to all," Sobocinski points out. "It has toys, learning kits--and it's all free."
The Francises say their money for childcare has been well spent. "If you really want to get the most bang for your dollar," Dan says, "that's the place to spend it. If you can get kids on the right track then, it helps their whole lives."
The Francises had not previously spoken publicly about their giving, but Fidelity "outed" them in a press release. Now that their generosity is known, Dan says, "there's plenty of room for people to join the parade."
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