By any measure, Children of the Rainbow, a for-profit childcare center serving San Diego's urban core, has been a phenomenal success. Within six months of opening in 1991, Gale Walker's state licensed home-based operation serving 12 children was in the black, where it has remained ever since. The center promptly grew into a 7,000-square-foot facility, serving 250 children and employing 52 staff—many living in bordering neighborhoods and, like Gale herself, former welfare moms. Today, Children of the Rainbow fills a vital service niche as the only licensed day care facility for infants and toddlers in the Logan Heights/Grant Hill/Stockton area. With the help of a large investment by the state, Gale will be opening a second program site in the next few months.
"I created the center based on my needs," explains Gale, who felt so strongly about not being separated from her own sons (then, two and five) that she fashioned a curriculum appropriate for children ages birth to 14-years-old, secured a license and began assembling a talented staff of teachers, artists and musicians from the area. Other elements of her program grew out of first-hand experience with the needs and aspirations of the families in her neighborhood—friends and neighbors, as well as clients. To accommodate the employment situations of low-wage working mothers, Children of the Rainbow offers shift-workers extended hours seven days a week and an integrated menu of family-friendly services that go far beyond mere baby-sitting—including warm words and a hot meal.
Possessed of an energy that frequently carries her well into the evening of every busy day, Gale is recognized as the epitome of an entrepreneur—with a decidedly communal vision. As Gale describes it, Children of the Rainbow sprung from a painting in her head of what was possible. "I think you have to be an artist to create a whole life," she clarifies. The Small Business Administration has twice recognized Gale's drive and business acumen in its "welfare-to-work entrepreneur of the year" award in 1999, and the following year as "small business owner 2000." She is quick to attribute her entrepreneurial success to an ability "to recognize the potential of everything around me—especially, the human capital." When asked who she feels accountable to, Gale replies, without hesitation: the families who use her services and, more broadly, to the community—an unusual point of view for a businesswoman. "Over the years, my clients, staff and I have all become good friends," she explains. "Most of us live in the neighborhood and we spend a lot of time just talking over coffee, sharing our dreams."
A visitor to Gale's San Diego neighborhood will notice its many liquor stores, but no major grocery or pharmacy. Half of the mostly African American and Latino households are living below the federal poverty line, yet a lot of public and private money has poured into the neighborhood over the years. Gale is critical of some existing nonprofit providers that seem organized to keep people dependent. Welfare reform has created a large pool of unskilled people anxious for work, but the area offers few job opportunities and little in the way of reliable transportation. Neighborhood elementary schools are among the worst in California—its middle schools closed long ago. Despite the lack of critical infrastructure, gentrification is a growing threat to the neighborhood, and families are having an increasingly difficult time finding affordable housing. This is not the usual stuff of dreams.
Nevertheless, where others see decay, defeat and despair, Gale sees "the light of hope and creativity that illuminates people from within—and it is theirs exclusively. The energy gathers around like to a magnet when you build the vision together," she says with enthusiasm. She also believes that this potential evaporates when you plan things for people instead of with them. Her own vision, first of a small child care center, then a larger facility and now of a holistic community-wide development plan involving two adjoining neighborhoods, has evolved with time and the deepening ties with her neighbors. "If our collective minds can conceive a vision, it is achievable—we all bring our dreams and expertise to the table and that's what makes it work."
When San Diego announced plans for neighborhood redevelopment without community input, Gale and her neighbors decided to initiate their own planning process. Receiving its tax-exempt status last October, a new community development corporation, christened the Bronze Triangle CDC, turned an offhand racist insult into an inspiring promise of renewal. "We are not trying to exclude anyone," she confides. She notes that the center serves a population that might be considered by some to be in the way. "Well," she declares, "we are in the way. And we won't be pushed out." Gale and her neighbors intend to become a force to be reckoned with.
Gale considers her intensity and drive a gift, a kind of spiritual energy she couldn't give back even if she wanted. "I can't stop," she insists. "I believe that I have allowed the spirit of God to move through me. It's like a blank canvas out there and I am the paint brush."