Since I was a little girl, I have cherished the traditions associated with holiday celebrations, especially the time spent together with family and friends around the table, sharing a meal and enjoying each other’s warm company in gratitude. In my family growing up, I was always asked to set the table. I loved the task, which entailed considering who would be joining us and finding ways to create just the right atmosphere to welcome guests and include their traditions. One beloved custom of our own was in welcoming the unique and varied contributions of our guests as they offered to our holiday table favorite dishes representing their own holiday traditions. I would have never guessed that my experiences in setting tables for our beloved family and friends at holiday time would afford me a special lens with which I view so many opportunities in other realms of my life today.

In my professional role as Executive Director of Help Me Grow National, I have had the privilege to sit at a number of new, expansive, and well-curated tables. Instead of relatives, the people sitting shoulder to shoulder at these tables are forward-thinking early childhood leaders who are passionate about coming together and bridging our efforts to achieve the greatest impact. But as different in nature as these affairs are, I am struck by the similarities. Like the family gatherings I treasure so dearly, these professional tables are carefully planned, connected guests are invited, and timing is everything. Once together, those sitting at the table share their precious time to offer the sentiments and experiences they hold dear. To me, the tables I sit at both personally and professionally yield some of the most valuable conversations I have all year.

A series of recent and significant early childhood convenings have inspired me to contemplate exactly what it is that makes these tables – and the conversations we share at them – so valuable. Our partners at these tables are inspiring and powerful. Our thought-provoking discussions on promising approaches to bonding and bridging our varied efforts are invigorating and vitalizing. I increasingly appreciate that the incredible value of sitting at these tables comes from the fact that each guest brings their best and most meaningful contributions, so that the result is an abundant harvest of expertise, best practice, and wisdom.

This past June, ZERO TO THREE convened leads of several national models for an intimate gathering to celebrate our respective accomplishments, with attention paid to the unique approaches that have yielded each individual model’s success. The environment was carefully designed and has continued to be maintained by a sophisticated facilitator who has ensured a balance between honoring the efficacy of the work as it is and the field’s imperative to catalyze innovative collaborations. The meeting intended to challenge outdated traditions of isolated funding, parallel but disconnected initiatives, and maintenance of rigid boundaries historically held by early childhood models. In an effort to advance practices, the guests gathered at this meeting were called to action, charged with the ambitious goal to ideate how initiatives can align and blend model-specific activities, so together we can accelerate the collective impact of our respective efforts.

In July, the National Institute for Children’s Health Quality (NICHQ) convened state leads and place-based community partners of the Maternal and Child Health Bureau’s Early Childhood Comprehensive Systems Impact Grant for a celebratory gathering. Together, partners shared accomplishments and the unique recipes each have followed to advance their comprehensive systems. Recently named as faculty to the ECCS Collaborative Improvement and Innovation Network (CoIIN), Help Me Grow National was a new ingredient to their traditional efforts. As a group, we spent considerable energy engaging in vibrant discussions with Help Me Grow affiliates and ECCS grantees to help discern how National might offer contributions to the table as currently set, and to also identify where Help Me Grow should and could pull up a seat.

Help Me Grow National has also been the guest at a number of funders’ tables in the past six months, offering collective expertise and wisdom on behalf of the National Affiliate Network, in order to advance a right-headed new wave of philanthropy which embraces a high impact model of giving, strategically leveraging resources from multiple aligned funders. The guest lists at these progressive philanthropic tables are expansive and cross-sector, with policy-makers, scientists, parent leaders, marketing experts, business interests, and many others contributing their unique and valuable presence, all offering essential elements to advance the shared agenda. The National Center was recently invited to a table coalescing around a Pediatric Big Bet that could transform child health services, and how investing in a shared measurement framework for young children’s social-emotional development could accelerate the spread and scale of interventions. At these types of convenings, we see a critical contribution by the National Center in impressing the value and accomplishments of Help Me Grow affiliates, and to promote a fecund environment that serves to advance the goals of affiliates across the country.

At federal tables, the National Center has recently shared ideas and recipes to support the thinking behind the Integrated Care for Kids (InCK) Model from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation and the Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five (PDG B-5) from the Administration for Children and Families Office of Child Care. The National Center is privileged to be included at the very tables that are championing transformational funding and service opportunities within multiple child-serving sectors at the highest level

At each and every one of these tables, Help Me Grow National was able to hold up the efforts of the Affiliate Network as examples of systemic solutions and vehicles to diffuse innovative strategies. The Network itself was highlighted as a primed system of providers and early childhood change agents who are collectively poised to “set the tables” in their respective states and communities. Being afforded the opportunity to contribute in these ways to such influential efforts is an honor. I have learned that while much has changed since I was a little girl, getting to experience others’ traditions and better understand their closely held hopes and dreams around a shared table remains an inspiration I cherish.

Kimberly Martini-Carvell is the executive director of the Help Me Grow National Center and the Associate Director for Capacity Building, Organizational Learning, and Professional Advancement at the Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health.