Start Early. Start well.

August 20, 2019

A 'Godmother' of Early Childhood Education sees progress, potential

By Matthew Hansen, Managing Editor

It was 1967, the Summer of Love, and a young woman named Helen Raikes found herself falling head over heels in California.

She wasn’t at a Grateful Dead concert or dancing in the park. At least not right then.

Instead Raikes sat alone in the stacks deep within the cavernous University of California-Davis library, reading books by the men and women who in the mid-20th century first studied the development of young children. She sat and read the foundational research for a field—early childhood education— that barely existed.

Fifty-two years ago, the young graduate student who would become one of Nebraska’s early childhood pioneers sat in the depths of a California library and fell in love with an idea. 

The idea: Harness this knowledge, and gain far more, to help our youngest, most vulnerable kids become successful adults.

“There were these electrifying moments, these times when I really began to understand … that these early experiences make a huge difference,” Raikes said from her office at the University of Nebraska ̶ Lincoln last week. “Nothing I have learned since has refuted that. Everything I have done since has only made me believe that more and more and more.”

Helen RaikesRaikes will be the keynote speaker at the 2019 Thriving Children, Families, and Communities Conference in Kearney Sept. 16. The event is free and open for those who want to learn more about high-quality early childhood education and how it enhances child development and boosts our economy.

Raikes has much to talk about, because she’s done a few things in the past half century. It’s a career that shows how far early childhood education has come, and how far it needs to go.

She founded and ran a cutting-edge child development center in Lincoln in the early 1980s, at a time when such high-quality centers barely existed in Nebraska or anywhere else. 

She went to Washington, D.C., running a key federal government research project that illustrated the importance of Early Head Start, which has since provided child development and family support for several million low-income kids from birth to age 3.

With her late husband, Nebraska Sen. Ron Raikes, and a group of early childhood leaders, she pushed to expand and fund Nebraska’s education system so it includes the state’s youngest residents, making it more likely they will be ready for Kindergarten. 

She has been a consistent voice for early childhood education in Nebraska, a tireless, nationally known advocate, a researcher who has influenced both state law and global understanding. Kathleen Gallagher, the Buffett Early Childhood Institute’s director of research and evaluation, remembers first reading Raikes’s work in grad school, and falling in love herself.

“There isn’t a board on early childhood in Nebraska that she hasn’t served on, an area that she hasn’t influenced,” Gallagher says. “She is, without a doubt, one of the godmothers of early childhood in this country.”

The godmother started in early childhood at a time when many experts still believed that autism was caused by bad parenting. She started when people, over and over, argued that early childhood education shouldn’t even exist—that young children should be at home with their mothers.

That argument, Raikes says, ignores the reality that the number of two-parent working families exploded in the 1960s and has continued to grow since.

“It was a myth, and there were a lot of myths, so we had to do a little myth busting,” Raikes said. “But once you get past those clichés … Nebraskans understand the value of education. So we were able to move.”

Today, Raikes looks around and can see that early childhood education in Nebraska is almost immeasurably better than it was at the beginning of her career. She credits the Sixpence program, programs run by the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, and work done by the Buffett Institute, First Five Nebraska and many other organizations and professionals for helping change the lives of tens of thousands of Nebraska children. She also deflects credit for this success to other pioneers like Harriet Egertson, who long ran the state’s early childhood education programs for the Nebraska Department of Education.

Sam Meisels, founding executive director of the Buffett Institute and one of the country’s preeminent early childhood experts, says Raikes has had much to do with early childhood success in Nebraska and the United States.

“She’s one of the most energetic people and most effective people I have met in this field and in any field in Nebraska,” Meisels says. “She’s unafraid. She’s generous. She’s eloquent. She brings real joy with her, no matter where she is. Those kinds of characteristics are always present when Helen Raikes is present.”

But this isn’t a victory lap, Helen Raikes warns, because we still have many laps left to run.

Early childhood programs need to be high-quality in every community in Nebraska, she says. We need to continue to work to remove barriers, like child abuse and substance abuse, that can often hamper the brain development of young children. And we need to pay the early childhood workforce far better, Raikes says. We need to do so without charging already strapped families more for early childhood programs. She will address some of these challenges, and offer possible solutions, in her keynote address, “Children and communities: What thriving looks like and what it takes.”

“There are those of us who are at retirement age and beyond who are still at it,” she says in her office, surrounded by studies she has co-authored, policy books she has influenced, five decades worth of work. 

“Because we aren’t done,” Raikes says. She leans back in her chair, looks up at the ceiling and laughs. “I think we’re going pretty strong, actually.”


Matthew Hansen, the managing editor of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, is an award-winning journalist tasked with telling the stories of the Institute's work and early childhood care and education in Nebraska and beyond.

His columns can be read at

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