Kym Johnson, executive director of BANANAS, a nonprofit childcare service in Oakland, thought the grant might be a prank when a Harris campaign staffer first called her about it. Credit: Amir Aziz

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On December 30, Kym Johnson was dropping off donations at the Salvation Army store in downtown Oakland when she received a call from an unrecognized number. Johnson, who serves as the executive director of BANANAS, a nonprofit that helps connect families with a variety of child care options, almost didn’t pick up. The person on the other end said he was calling on behalf of “Kamala Harris’ campaign” and wanted to inform her that BANANAS had been chosen to receive a $20,000 grant. 

Johnson thought it was a prank. Of the many thousands of nonprofit organizations that serve worthy causes in the Bay Area, why would Vice President Kamala Harris pick BANANAS? But if it was for real, she told the caller, she’d be “blown away.” She decided to keep the news to herself just in case it didn’t pan out. When a colleague called her some time later to say the grant had been announced in the Chronicle, she was elated that her team had been recognized for its work.

BANANAS was born in the early 1970s when women were entering the workforce in increasing numbers and the need for quality childcare grew enormously. The women who founded the nonprofit believed strongly that everyone should have access to affordable childcare, no matter what their income. 

Over the decades, BANANAS became the respected “go-to” for generations of East Bay families, providing child care referrals and resources to parents with young children and child care professionals, parent education classes, professional development training, and playgroups. BANANAS helps families that need assistance paying for child care access subsidy programs, and 99.9% of BANANAS’ services are provided at no cost. 

Most of the group’s funding comes from government grants. The organization serves 4,000 parents, children, and providers, and pays for the childcare of over 3,500 children each year in Oakland and other East Bay cities. That was all before the pandemic.

When the COVID-19 shutdown started last year, East Bay childcare providers and parents were hit hard.

“All of a sudden, the field was hemorrhaging,” said Johnson. The work for providers caring for nonessential workers dried up and some were forced to close. Other centers serving essential workers didn’t have the option to close, but they also lacked clear guidelines for how to operate safely. Cleaning supplies and protective gear were also hard to get.

Makinya Ward manages five Kids Konnect childcare centers serving essential workers in healthcare, retail, and the gig economy. She said that BANANAS provided critical updates about COVID protocols, translating them into accessible language, and into Spanish, Cantonese, and Mandarin. BANANAS also secured essential supplies for her care centers like paper towels, wipes, masks, and other PPE. The group also helped identify funding that allowed her to keep her workers employed and maintain their health benefits.

“Without all of that, I couldn’t have stayed open,” she said.

Makinya Ward, founder of Kids Connect, said BANANAS has provided invaluable support to child care providers during the pandemic. Credit: Amir Aziz

Cindy Hoang is an essential worker in Oakland, serving as an eligibility clerk for the Alameda County Social Services Agency. She is the first person many people see when they’re applying for benefits in Oakland. She’s also a single mom with three kids (ages 16, 14, and three). She thought she’d be laid off work if she couldn’t find childcare. She contacted BANANAS, who helped her identify and pay for (thanks to state subsidies for essential workers) childcare near her home for all three kids. Her oldest son was able to get help with schoolwork at the center. She thinks that without the service, her oldest, who has learning disabilities, would have fallen behind. When she heard about the services BANANAS was able to find she said “it was like angels singing.” 

As part of their COVID response, BANANAS gave out $426,000 in cleaning supplies, 75,000 diapers, and 1,700 PPE items to child care providers. Three quarters of the families in their subsidy program are essential workers, as are the childcare providers themselves. Johnson notes that these are the folks they’ve been serving all along—hospital and custodial workers, grocery clerks, and delivery drivers. 

“Now people are understanding how much they’re needed to keep society going,” she said.

Far from scaling back, BANANAS actually increased their reach and impact during the pandemic by starting to serve families and caregivers outside of the East Bay communities of Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, Albany, Emeryville and Piedmont. To do this, the group went virtual; staff members were provided laptops so they could safely work from home and communicate with families in need, without any lapse in service. 

Before the pandemic, about 40-50 families participated in weekly playgroups at various sites; now there are 170, via Zoom.  “Socialization isn’t happening,” said Johnson, referring to the need for children to gather and play, but the virtual get-togethers are helping.

Workshops have also grown in size during the pandemic. Whereas 15-30 people used to attend workshops in person, now participation hovers around 40-50. 

“It’s not ideal, but it did let us know that there’s a different way to do what we do, and to serve more people,” Johnson said.

BANANAS obviously does crucial work in the community. But why did Harris pick it as one of the three groups she decided to support when she closed down her campaign committee? Johnson told The Oaklandside she doesn’t know why BANANAS was singled out for the grant.

The Oaklandside attempted to contact Harris’s campaign staff to ask about the BANANAS grant but didn’t receive a response. The Chronicle reported that Harris “picked organizations that have been especially valuable amid the pandemic.” BANANAS was the only Bay Area nonprofit to receive funding.

Childcare is a cause dear to Harris’s heart though. In a 2019 essay published in Bustle, Harris wrote about the late Regina Shelton, a Berkeley resident who ran a daycare center out of her home that Harris and her sister attended after school while their single mother worked evenings in a UC Berkeley science lab. In Harris’s words, Shelton was “one of the smartest people I’ve ever known,” and someone who “lived by the belief that you always lend a hand to those in need.” From Shelton, Harris wrote that she learned that she and her sister could be anything they wanted to be.

When Harris was sworn in as Vice President earlier this month, she chose to place her hand on a bible that belonged to Shelton.

“The Sheltons devoted themselves to ensuring that neighborhood kids got off to the best possible start in life,” Harris wrote in the Bustle essay. 

We asked Regina Shelton’s daughter, Sharon McGaffie, who ran Shelton’s Primary Care Center in Berkeley that served a young Kamala Harris until it closed a decade ago, if she has any insights into why the Vice President gave $20,000 to the Oakland nonprofit. McGaffie said over text messages that she doesn’t know either.

Whatever the specific reason for the grant, Johnson said the $20,000 will be added to the BANANAS Aid Fund, which helps struggling families meet basic needs by paying for rent, food, car repair, and clothing, where the need is far greater than before the pandemic. Johnson said members of the public can also contribute to the aid fund by visiting BANANAS’ website.

About the support her group received from BANANAS over the past year Ward said, “it doesn’t matter who answers the phone, or who you interact with—they’re all committed to helping. It’s not just their mission statement—they live it.”

C.J. Hirschfield

C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry, where she produced two regular series and ran San Francisco’s public access channel. She penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, wrote regularly for Oakland Local, and has contributed to KQED’s Perspectives series. She now writes for EatDrinkFilms and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.