February 9, 2021

Building Community through program development & supporting Childcare through COVID-19

By Valerie Kelly 

Meet Fritzi Gragg! Fritzi has had a long tenure with us, from the evolution of Child Development Centers into Catalyst Kids and from Program Manager to Senior Manager of Center Compliance. She’s played a crucial role in the growth and development of our programs and community outreach in our Orange County region. It was a pleasure being able to learn more about how she supports our families, communities, and children especially during tough times like these.

How long have you been with Catalyst? What is your current title? Have you had any other roles/titles with us?   

This is my 24th year with the company. I started in 1997 with the agency as a Site Supervisor and I am currently the Senior Manager of Center Compliance. I started out as a Site Supervisor with school-agers in Tustin at Peter’s Canyon, with 100% private students. When I first started with the agency, we did not have the systems in place that we have now. I remember posting checks by hand on ledger cards. I spent about a year working with subsidized families as a Site Supervisor before moving into a Program Director role when state preschools were opened in Orange County. At the time, I had four Irvine centers on my team that served School Age children and I had an opportunity to work with Tustin Unified to open five state preschools. In 2000, Orange County Department of Education gave their subsidized contracts back to the state and asked us to take most of the contract.

I moved over to being the Program Director for those centers and after about six months Ann Saneto began to work for the agency and we shared the 100 centers as we called them. I have been a Program Director for over 20 years and have always been involved with advocacy work statewide. I had the opportunity to testify in front of legislators when we faced budget cuts. I have also written grant proposals for subsidized funds from the state. Around three years ago, I shifted over to a different position where I support program compliance statewide. My current title is Senior Manager of Center Compliance. I create reports for the board, assist with the paperwork for licensing and social services, develop Health and Safety 20 minute modules, and participate on multiple statewide teams to give a licensing and CDE perspective 

Tell me about your career and educational background. What roles were you in prior to coming to Catalyst?   

Prior to working for Catalyst Family Inc. I worked for the Torrance South Bay YMCA. I started out as a preschool teacher, and eventually became a Program Director. I have been involved in the Orange County Child Care and Development Council. I served as Chair of the council for four years and then became Second Vice-Chair. Two years ago, I became Chair again and plan to serve in this position for another two years. I am the Co-Chair for our Orange County Emergency Task Force that was formed due to COVID19 as an Ad Hoc committee of the council. I am also on the advocacy and public policy committee for Early Childhood OC. I joke that maybe one day when I retire, I will run for public office.  

I got my BS degree in Psychology at Loyola Marymount University and an MA in Behavioral Science from Cal State Dominguez Hills. For my master’s degree, my emphasis was Gerontology. I spent time focusing on Intergenerational care where older adults and young children are cared for together. Initially, when I got my degree in Psychology I was interested in becoming a child psychologist. After I graduated, I fell into the position at the YMCA and have been working in the early care and education field ever since. I taught preschool and moved into a Site Supervisor/Program Director for about 7 years. When I moved to OC, I applied to the organization and accepted a position at Catalyst Kids – Peters Canyon, formerly known as Peters Canyon Child Development Center.      

Is there a particular experience or memorable moment that stands out to you in your time here at Catalyst?     

Being able to testify in front of the assembly members panel for education during budget cuts to help fund childcare. Recently there was a five-million-dollar funding on a first-come, first-served basis and I submitted an application for funds for our Orange County centers. The grant was $175 per child for private slots only.

They received a thousand applications, and I was thinking, no way they would be able to give us all the funds we requested. They later increased it to a 10-million-dollar funding, and we ended up getting the $330,000 we applied for. I screamed from my craft room upon seeing the deposit to our bank. Some of the centers that received the funding were not doing well financially. I cried; it will be something I always remember. During the time of our official rebrand announcement, I remember the proud feeling to have worked for the organization for so long. I even teared up; we do such great things

We are truly turning into this non-profit that we have wanted to become. 

We have a name that is not confused with the Center for Disease Control and that identifies us in the community 

What do you enjoy most about being a Compliance Manager or working here at Catalyst?  

I love the relationships, being able to support the site supervisors and staff by helping interpret guidelines and being able to support. They are so appreciative of the support. Even if it is virtual, they love visits, especially in-person visits when possible. I can help get their questions answered about licensing and funding regulations. 

I love the daily interactions with people and supporting our staff in their roles as they learn and grow. 

It is just amazing being able to watch people you have worked with get a site supervisor or center manager position and eventually move into roles like program director.   

What does a typical day look like in the role?    

Every day is different, but for the past year, it has been heavily focused on COVID19. I have spent a lot of time on county health orders as regulations come out and making sure center operations is informed. Janis and I provide guidance for centers on licensing and CDE regulations, and handle any unusual incident reports, reporting unusual situations that occur at the centers. I am on a team that is focusing on Cal OSHA requirements, and one that has focused on electronic attendance with KinderSign and KinderSmart. Janice Adkins and I are doing virtual center visits over FaceTime – Janis visits the Bay and Sacramento centers, and I visit the Orange County/Riverside and Oxnard centers.    

Tell me something that you think makes our organization unique.  

We are unique in what we offer children and how we meet their needs by letting them create their own program and where they want to go, especially with clubs and the environment. My son went to the YMCA and has spent time in our centers and what our staff does is unmatched. Our curriculum is driven by the interests of the students. We believe children are competent and we listen and provide an exciting hands-on experience that is meaningful to them.  

Our centers are a family, and we are really all about the families and children. We have sponsored children for Christmas because a lot of families cannot afford gifts, especially during tough times. It is really cool when you go out and see the support at all of the centers and witness the love everyone has for each other. It makes me emotional. I mean, how do you tell potential families about that? There are even children who really want to be at the center all the time, even during the holidays. It is really their safe haven.   

We really embrace children and their needs and foster their growth.

We have seen children as young as two years old serving themselves lunch or pouring their own milk. They are self-sufficient and they shine so brightly because they can explore what they are interested in as teachers watch, listen, and ask thought-provoking questions. Children feel valued and validated and that is something you do not often get in a regular K-12 curriculum. We create programs with the staff; we are all partners in the curriculum. That is why our centers really are the best and why kids want to come. Children really need to be heard and we help create awareness so that they feel heard. We listen to what children want and need and that is what makes the program so unique, teachers and children co-create together. The people and the relationships are what make the organization, and it is what helps us get through tough times like these. I honestly do not see myself ever going anywhere else.