Photo by Jeannie Frey Rhodes

Women with a Cause 2024: Theta Williams

CAUSE: Baton Rouge Early Childhood Education Collaborative

Many years ago, Theta Williams carried a business card designed with a photo of herself reading a book to a child, along with the caption, “Children are my business.” As a longtime early childhood educator turned education consultant, Williams has made it her life’s work to reach as many underserved children as possible and provide them with the skills needed to be successful students.

In 2018, soon after her retirement, she was approached about taking on a new role as a founding member of the Baton Rouge Early Childhood Education Collaborative (BRECEC). The nonprofit organization is comprised of educators, representatives from various community agencies and faith-based groups, healthcare professionals, government officials and others working toward a common goal: addressing the educational needs of low-income, underserved preschool children in the Baton Rouge area. The group realized that people throughout the community were willing to assist but did not have a vehicle to organize and direct their contributions for the maximum benefit of the children and their families.

According to a 2022 study by the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, 60% of children in the state are not ready for kindergarten. Williams says that many children are receiving in-home care from family members or other caregivers with limited knowledge of how to prepare children for kindergarten and further school success.

“The first teacher of any child is the mother or the primary caregiver,” Williams says. “There are no manuals that teach mothers how to be teachers of their children. There are no manuals that teach a mother how to be a parent, and so they do the best they can. My concern has always been that we need to help mothers and families provide a stimulating environment for children to be exposed to.”

Today, BRECEC serves preschool-aged children, 2 to 4 years old, through a year-round program. A volunteer equipped with supplies like books, toys and educational games meets with the child and parent or primary caregiver in the home to teach specific and significant concepts. The parent or caregiver is given instructions for follow-up activities and the child keeps the materials to reinforce the concepts.

“In my career, I’ve been trying to find a way to get more services to more children,” Williams says. “Once they’re in kindergarten, they’ve got to be able to hold their own so that they can move progressively through the educational experience and be successful. It’s when they’re not successful that they lose interest, and then we lose them. And therefore, we lose segments of our community.”