WATERLOO, Iowa --- Jackie Joyner-Kersee emphasized the importance of early childhood education Thursday during a program honoring Cedar Valley innovators in that field.

"We have to make it work, because our future starts with the preschoolers," said the Olympic gold medalist, who works with student mentoring and wellness programs in her hometown of East St. Louis, Ill.

While this was Joyner-Kersee's first visit to the Cedar Valley, her mother grew up in Waterloo. She still has many aunts, uncles and cousins in the community. Joyner-Kersee was 18 when her mother died, and she missed out on a number of family reunions in Waterloo because of her involvement in track and field during that era.

She is looking forward to returning not only to see family, but to get involved in the community.

"I would really like to come back and really have a strong impact," Joyner-Kersee said.

She spoke Thursday at the inaugural Innovation Awards program for the Iowa office of First Children's Finance, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that develops partnerships to support the business of early child care and education.

"We know, especially with minority boys, teaching them to read and write at a young age is so profound," she told the audience at the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center.

Joyner-Kersee said she excelled in life "because someone cared" about her as a child, noting that included "people outside of my family." Between the 1984 and 1996 Olympics, she won three gold, one silver and two bronze medals.

Cedar Falls residents Linda Jacoby, director of the Cedar Valley Preschool and Child Care Center, and Betty Zan, associate professor and director of the Regents' Center for Early Developmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa, were award recipients. Each received $500 from the organization. Semifinalists included Alexie Feuerhelm of Kaleidoscope Kids Childcare Center in West Union; Mary Beth Wood of Trinity Episcopal Preschool and Childcare in Waterloo; Luann Scallon of Waverly Child Care and Preschool; and Beth James of Waverly Kids' Club.

Heidi Schlueter, First Children's Finance Iowa director, said Zan won for her center's collection of video recordings from across Iowa demonstrating quality early education techniques in practice. The recordings can be accessed via a searchable Internet database to be used in professional development for teachers and care providers. Schlueter said Jacoby won for her "day-to-day innovative approach" to finding resources that keep her nonprofit center operating through grants, collaboration, donations and volunteers.

"I want to state up front that I don't really deserve this award," said Zan. "I'm accepting it as a figurehead." She went on to explain how she and her staff began gathering the videos almost four years ago.

Jacoby said the flood of 2008 damaged her center's grounds and caused it to close for a week about the same time she became director. Enrollment dropped by more than a quarter and left the nonprofit $25,000 in debt. She brought community members together for brainstorming sessions to help solve the problem and turned to First Children's Finance as a "lifeline" to get back on solid footing.

Such a role is key to how First Children's Finance works with early care and education centers, which can easily run into financial difficulties when they lose students.

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