News: Thrivalaska director ready to retire, but she’s not ready to give up her mission

December 1, 2020

Republished with permission. Written by Amanda Bohman, Fairbanks Daily News Miner,

Nov 30, 2020

A champion for early childhood education in Alaska is retiring after a career that began 36 years ago with a job as a cook, but don’t expect Alicia Berka, 66, to go quietly.

The executive director of Thrivalaska said she won’t give up her fight to make quality education for the very young more widely available.

“Being a voice for children has been one of the most important things I have done with my life,” Berka said. “You never see a 2- or 3-or a 4-year-old giving testimony. Somebody has to speak up for them.”

She plans to leave the helm of Thrivalaska in March or sooner depending on the search for her replacement. The nonprofit operates a child care facility and preschool; a before-and-after-school program that is currently suspended due to COVID-19; and offers education, financial assistance and child care referrals. Berka has been executive director since 2009.

In its heyday, Thrivalaska oversaw multiple facilities serving as many as 400 children per day, Berka said. After the 2008 recession, centers started to close.

“Parents could no longer afford care,” Berka said.

Thrivalaska is down to one Head Start Birth To Five program, serving 72 children, which is reduced due to COVID-19, Berka said.

Another 250 families are served through other programs, she said.

Berka estimates Thrivalaska has touched the lives of as many as 25,000 children since it was established in 1974.

Berka feels that early childhood education is underappreciated by elected leaders and much work needs to be done.

Less than 1% of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development budget goes toward early development, Berka said.

“Quality education does not start at 5 years old. It starts way before that,” she said.

She was a mother of two young children when she started in the field in 1984 as a volunteer at a preschool run by her sister. When a job as a cook opened up, she applied.

“I am a caregiver. The field just attracts me as a human being,” Berka said.

She also served as a driver and later a teacher and school director before becoming executive director of the whole agency.

“My dream is that early childhood services would be available to all children from birth through 12th grade,” Berka said.

The science to support this approach is strong. Most human brain development takes place in the very early years. Berka said80%-90% of brain development happens by age 4. This critical time in human development sets people up for life, she said, yet fewer American children attend preschool than other rich countries.

“That is the piece that people just don’t get,” Berka said. “There is too much at stake.”

Berka was born in Washington state and as the daughter of civil servants working for the U.S. Department of Defense, she grew up living in many places, including overseas.

Some of her earliest memories are of “Mama Jo,” who looked after Berka and her cousins before she was school aged.

“All I remember is fun every day,” she said.

Berka started school at age 5, a year early because her parents were living in Japan and that was the custom there.

As a teen, Berka took her first job as a shampoo girl in a hair salon. She also worked at a fast food restaurant and later at a credit card company.

She was living in Washington D.C. and working in the paralegal department at a law office when her uncle called one day and suggested she come to Alaska.

Berka laughed at the notion. She thought people here lived in igloos. Then her uncle, who was working on the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, told her about the ratio of men to women. She arrived two weeks later and started a job on the pipeline.

Berka said the state of Alaska is a “child care desert,” and she has been told by legislators that young children belong at home with their mothers.

“The early childhood field is not valued,” Berka said, “I believe because it’s a female-dominated profession.”

Berka has no formal early childhood education though she has taken more than 1,000 hours of training and has multiple credentials and certificates in leadership and early childhood development.

She said the country needs early childhood education programs similar to what was offered during World War II. Women were needed in the workforce, and the federal government funded thousands of community child care centers. They were accessible to families regardless of income. They were popular and the program was extended, but only for a year after the war ended.

It was the only time in history that the United States offered universal child care.

“If during really hard times our government can step forward and provide state-of-the-art child care, then why can’t they do it now?” Berka said.

Contact Daily News Miner staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545, and follow her on Twitter: @FDNMborough.