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Imagine Staff Spotlight: Marie Keller

A professional portrait of a woman with dark hair and a blue sweater

This week, we’re proud to feature Marie Keller, Imagine’s Director of Career Pathways.

Meet Marie

Marie Keller knows how much skill and insight child care providers bring to their profession, because she’s experienced it from so many sides.

Marie ran her own child care business for 21 years and worked with a child care union to listen to providers across Washington State. Now, she leads Imagine U, the Imagine Institute’s signature relationship-based mentoring program that has helped nearly 400 people open their own child care businesses in Washington.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect and value for the child care and early childhood education workforce, because I know what it’s like to walk in their shoes every day.”

STEPPING INTO CHILD CARE

When Marie’s daughter, Jordan, started elementary school, Marie was working a job with weekend and evening shifts and a long commute. After she missed her first parent-teacher meeting, she decided to change her life and get more involved.

She volunteered on the playground once a week and helped Jordan’s teacher once a week. One day, the school’s principal called Marie in for a meeting. Marie was nervous, but the message was good — the principal had been watching her and encouraged her to consider a career in education.

Marie took leave from her job, started taking early childhood education classes and substituted for a teacher on maternity leave. When she realized the school had no summer program, she decided to dive into the world of professional child care.

Eagle Day Camp — named for the school’s mascot — opened in 1997. Marie expanded her business to include after-school care, preschool and family home child care.

She was proud to meet critical needs in her community. As her business evolved, she got involved in the SEIU Local 925 union, and her career took another turn.

A woman in glasses snuggles a small baby
Marie snuggles her grandson Eli.

JUMPING INTO ACTION

As a child care provider, Marie was hungry for action that would address the issues she heard other people in her field talking about.

“I needed to say, ‘Here are the problems that exist and here are some solutions. How do we drive those solutions?’”

When she became a chapter secretary, she handed her business off to longtime staffers and started traveling Washington to hear child care providers’ concerns, including the struggles to meet staffing needs, find substitutes, understand increasing state requirements and access meaningful training.

As these conversations went on, Marie, Cate Bridenstine and others began laying the groundwork for what became the Imagine Institute. When Marie learned the state was interested in funding a program that would help people become licensed child care providers in 2017, she jumped into action. She quickly explained the idea for a mentorship-based program, wrote up a proposal with Cate overnight and presented it to state officials the next morning.

Imagine U was born.

“How awesome to be able to implement all of these great things we fought for all of these years! We listened, we lobbied, we bargained. Improving the lives of others has just been incredible.”

BUILDING UP MENTORSHIP

In 2018, Marie accepted a full-time position as director of career pathways at the Imagine Institute.

One of Marie’s goals for Imagine U was to ensure training was relevant to child care providers’ experiences, and that the people providing training had lived those experiences. 

“The idea of peer mentors, for the Imagine Institute, is really focusing on people who do the work, have the lived experience, and giving them the tools and skills and system to support that ongoing work in many ways.”

A little boy eats ice cream
Marie's grandson Ezra enjoying an ice cream treat with his mom, Jordan.

Imagine U provides interns who aspire to open child care businesses with mentors who guide and train them through every step. Both interns and mentors are paid for their work, and mentors have the opportunity to further hone their expertise as lead mentors.

Looking to the future, Marie expects to see Imagine U and the Imagine Institute continue and expand their work, responding to new state requirements and building the support systems child care providers need.

She compares this work to another love in her life: whitewater rafting. When she’s out on a river, she seeks to leave the places she visits better than she found them.

“We’re leaving a system better than what we found it. We’re helping the people who are in the field, doing the work, build the skills that continue to have that ripple effect in their community. That’s the mission every day, and in a sustainable way. The knowledge and skills that they’re developing will never be taken away.”