In 1991, a social worker helped Gale Walker find her vision after years of struggling on welfare and mourning her mother’s death. She has been providing the same inspiration to her community ever since, creating hope for families in one of San Diego’s low-income neighborhoods.
Walker founded and runs Children of the Rainbow, a child-care organization that goes far beyond “babysitting” to nurturing about 200 children and strengthening their families. To accommodate the many shift workers in her area, Walker opens her two centers at 5 a.m. and closes them at 1 a.m. She accepts youngsters ranging in age from newborn to 14 so siblings can stay together. She hires the children’s older brothers and sisters after school to keep them off the streets and to build their self-esteem. And the children’s mothers and neighbors comprise half of the center’s 52 employees.
In 1985, Walker left her job as a U.S. postal worker in Dallas to return to her dying mother in San Diego. Depressed after her mother’s death, she turned to the welfare system to support herself and her two young sons until the government nudged her to find a job. She tried to find childcare but soon discovered only one son qualified for Head Start and the other would need to go into home-based care. “I didn’t want to separate my kids,” she says. “I told my social worker, and the next week she came back with the information I needed to start my own home-based child care.” Looking at the devastated neighborhood surrounding Walker’s home, a licensing agent made a comment that led Walker to begin surveying her neighbors and clients about what they needed, giving form to the community-based philosophy that has guided her mission ever since.
Walker has focused her centers on two key components: creativity through the arts and encouraging healthy lifestyles through nutrition. A neighborhood artist has graced the walls with murals, “Mr. Earl” plays lullabies on his saxophone, and teachers have wide latitude to use their imaginations. Two cooks work full time at the centers, fixing breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two snacks each day. And a large garden at her smaller center, a Victorian house where she and her sons also live, offers children lessons in nature, along with the fresh vegetables so difficult to find in the urban neighborhoods.
As she prepared to open two more centers before the end of 2001, Walker continued to listen to her neighbors’ needs beyond child care – lack of jobs, good grocery stores, reliable transportation, and decent housing. Walker and her neighbors developed a plan to establish the Bronze Triangle Community Development Corporation. The structure of a CDC will help the community draw employers and new services to three neighborhoods where the poverty level hovers at 50 percent.
Children of the Rainbow is a 2002 Honoree of Families Count, the national honors program that recognizes organizations that are making a difference in the lives of families struggling to survive in tough neighborhoods.