A handful of people with large hearts and small purses created A Stepping Stone Foundation in 1989.  They began a journey to create preschool experiences for every needy child in Arizona. Believing that early education is crucial for all children, and seeing the woeful number of children not being served that would most benefit, this group decided to make a difference.

The Foundation put together a “Dream Plan” for a preschool to serve four-year-olds at risk of school failure. The Isaac School District indicated great need and a willingness to work with the Foundation and the rest is history!

A Stepping Stone Foundation Board and Isaac School District created what was to be an award-winning program in the fall of 1990 and now, thirty years later, A Stepping Stone Foundation has served more than 1900 families (over 6,000 people) in five different Arizona school districts: Alhambra, Fowler, Isaac, Globe, and Murphy. Two model, child-centered family literacy programs, which we now call LEAF, remain open in cooperation with the Alhambra and Isaac School Districts.

“We are very proud of our children and all they have accomplished this year. They have learned many practical skills such as recognizing colors, shapes and some numbers, cutting with scissors, holding a crayon or pencil, taking turns, sharing, and following directions. Along with all these important preschool skills, the children are gaining confidence and are feeling good about themselves, who they are and what they can do. Equally important, they are developing a positive attitude about school and an enthusiasm for learning. We thank you for investing in our children’s futures and we assure you that you have made a difference for children and for their families.”
At the first year-end celebration, Teacher Carmen Sanchez

And it’s still TRUE!!

The First Decade

Originally incorporated as the I Have a Dream Foundation early in 1989, by the end of that first year, as plans solidified, the name changed to A Stepping Stone Foundation. Rev. Bill Smith with friends and members of Shadow Rock Congregational Church founded A Stepping Stone Foundation. Local early educators, Eileen Hoard and Marilyn Rampley, who were instrumental in the initial program design and administration, were the first co-directors.

In September of 1990, with only 40% of the needed money in hand, the first site launched at the neighborhood Mitchell Elementary School in Isaac district. Twenty children from diverse cultural backgrounds embarked on a preschool journey. Two loving teachers and adult volunteers provided the children with language experiences, cognitive skills, social growth, motor experiences–and a hot breakfast and lunch. Their parents enrolled in GED (High School Equivalency) and ESL (English as a Second Language) classes.

Realizing that parents play a vital role in successful school careers, A Stepping Stone Foundation provided over 240 hours of parenting workshops to the parents that year, setting the tone for the next two decades. Additionally, the teachers made monthly home visits to each family.  The teachers gave the children and their parents an educational activity for learning at home and discussed progress with the family.

Foundation board members worked to raise the remaining necessary funds and by the end of the school year proudly reflected on the remarkable success of the first graduates. The group had funds in the bank to begin year two and dreams of opening yet another classroom. While it took an additional year, the board did indeed fulfill its expansion dream.

In the third year of operation, the program moved into the beautifully renovated Isaac Preschool site. Working hand-in-hand with Even Start, Head Start, and special needs programs, the Stepping Stone program thrived. That spring, negotiations opened with the Alhambra School District to duplicate the program at one of their schools for the 1992-93 year. The fourth year was outstanding. Forty more children and their families became a part of the Stepping Stone Foundation dream. Remarkable award-winning collaborations happened between the districts, the community and the Foundation. The Foundation provided extras such as holiday parties, gifts for siblings, childcare for workshops and donated classroom equipment. Year five was equally successful, ending with the Foundation Board deciding to add an additional class in March 1995.

In year six, classes began at three sites in September, serving 60 more families. Year seven added an additional childcare class for parents and year eight began in the fall of 1997 with continuing enthusiasm. A fourth group of families was added in year nine increasing LEAF capacity to 80 families.  The Foundation formed an Advisory Board, and made a commitment to duplicate the Stepping Stone family literacy model in other settings. At the end of our first decade we had grown our family capacity by 300%!

The Next Nine Years

2000 – 2009

In 2000, A Stepping Stone Foundation hired its first dedicated employee, Cynthia Gattorna, to work as director of the foundation.  She worked part-time for one year and then The Foundation hired a different part-time director, Marisa Benincasa—the daughter of our first Teacher Carmen Sanchez.  In the 12th year, A Stepping Stone Foundation added a fifth group of family literacy families and Cynthia Gattorna returned as full-time Executive Director and worked closely with Marisa Benincasa. The two of them focused on development of funding and programming.

In 2002, with the help of the Kemper and Ethel Marley Foundation, A Stepping Stone Foundation opened a three-year pilot project in the Murphy School District to see if a local board could be created and nurtured in order to take over the care of one site. The foundation leaders learned much from this experience, but in the end, the pilot closed. The key finding was that the $90,000 price tag to keep one site up and running at the time was too much for one small local board to raise each year—especially given the fact that these sites were in generally impoverished areas.

Other highlights of our second decade of service include:

  • With a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Foundation, former Stepping Stone co-directors, Marilyn Rampley and Eileen Hoard, who were preschool directors at Shadow Rock Preschool, wrote the first how-to narrative in hopes of encouraging other communities to replicate the Stepping Stone LEAF model.
  • NEW INITIATIVE: providing scholarships to former preschoolers who had graduated high school and needed financial assistance to continue post-secondary studies. After a $30,000 seed gift from Mrs. Billie Gannway, our Billie Gannaway Scholarship Fund took flight.
  • Additional heroic fundraising over this decade allowed for planned growth and implementation of sustaining strategies. The Foundation created special events like Stepping into Paradise, nine golf tournaments, and the newly established Cena y Serenata dinner event with friends from the Hispanic community. Great marketing and a general spreading the word allowed A Stepping Stone to maintain its policy of having six months of funding in the bank at all times.
  • Board diversity became a strategic goal and in 2007, Maritza Hernandez, became the first former preschooler to join the Stepping Stone Board.
  • The Foundation hired its first Program Coordinator, Paulette Harshberger, in the fall of 2008.
  • The Foundation created a fourth public school district partnership with Fowler Elementary School District. That site opened in January of 2009 at Fowler Elementary thanks to another generous grant from the Kemper and Ethyl Marley Foundation.

Lean Years

2010 – 2013

Many education initiatives directly felt the effects the Great Recession and A Stepping Stone Foundation was no exception.  They closed the supported sites at Isaac Preschool Campus and Granada Primary School in the Alhambra School District during this period. In the case of Isaac, the preschool campus continued child-centered family literacy through other funding. They were highlighted as a national standard having been a primary participant in the $33 Million family literacy CLIO project and A Stepping Stone Foundation was proud to have helped set them on that path.

Just months after A Stepping Stone wrote their last check of support to Isaac District, the State of Arizona via the Early Childhood Block Grant with federal funding and soon after the Even Start entitlement program (also federal funding) evaporated.  The District partnership with Fowler Elementary ended too, as that grant came to a close; but with the help of Arizona’s First Things First, the preschool classrooms the Foundation created continued. Sadly, the family literacy pieces (English, GED, Home Visiting and Child and Parent Time Together) are no longer funded at Fowler as of the writing of this document.

Yet, amidst this lean time, a new initiative was born!

Scholarship Programs

Since 2003, A Stepping Stone Foundation had been using a small endowment fund to provide college scholarships. Supporter Billie Gannaway seeded the endowment with $30,000 to provide education scholarships to program graduates.

As our first preschools began going to college, we also started an annual workshop event called Stepping Into College. Today, our Stepping into the Future Initiative now consists of the Stepping Into College event, the Billie Gannaway Memorial Scholarship program, and an award dinner, Bill and Billie’s Kids Go to College.

Internship Program

As part of that initiative in the fall of 2012, A Stepping Stone hired its first former preschoolers to work in the administrative office hosted by Climatec Inc. This was the beginning of our Internship Program.

As if the fates wished to tell us that brighter times were on their way, ABC featured A Stepping Stone Foundation on the Secret Millionaire television program, which aired in 2013.  It came with a surprise $50,000 gift from our Millionaire Jay Deutsch of BDA, Inc.

2013 and Beyond

In February of 2013, MBA candidates from the Thunderbird School of Global Management began working with A Stepping Stone Foundation. Together with Executive Director Cynthia Gattorna and the board, they managed a change project geared toward data-informed giving and diversified support.

Building on this information, the board and staff worked together to establish a 12-month financial reserve; thanks in great part to bequests in 2019 and 2020.

Other organizational highlights during this time include:

  • In 2014, the Bob and Renee Parsons Foundation granted a significant amount of money for support of LEAF at the Alhambra sites for three years. This was a site-saving grant, which allowed us to continue our LEAF activities at Alhambra School District.
  • In 2015, the board focused on recruitment, which resulted in our most diverse board to date, new board bylaws and a three-year strategic plan.
  • A Stepping Stone launched a new board-driven initiative in the fall of 2017 called the TwoGenEd Affinity Group. Its stated purpose was to ensure that practitioners, elected officials, funders and policy makers were communicating and working together for family literacy awareness, funding, projects and political will. This group meets quarterly.
  • In 2017, the board approved a new logo and in 2020 a new website launched with the new look.

Today, A Stepping Stone Foundation has two demonstration LEAF sites; one at Alhambra Elementary School District’s Westwood Elementary campus and the other resides at Bret Tarver Isaac Preschool in Isaac District—where it all began in 1990.  The Foundation has awarded more than $275,000 in scholarship money to 139 former preschoolers seeking post-secondary education.  Eight former preschoolers have interned in the Stepping Stone office and the TwoGenEd Affinity group has met at various demonstration sites and at the Arizona State capitol.

Looking forward, the board and the executive director seek to further stabilize funding, explore internal and external capacity building and examine the relevancy of our programs. If our story has inspired you, please reach out to any of us to see how you can help us on our journey forward.

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