Bernice Weissbourd, 99, a researcher and advocate who built on her experience as a Head Start teacher to become a national leader in promoting the critical role of families in their children’s early childhood development, died October 12 at her home in Evanston IL. She was in the forefront of developing public understanding of what has become common knowledge: that the first three years of life are critical to a child’s development and have lifelong impact. Weissbourd went on to pioneer the idea that providing support and education for families when children are very young can make a big difference in realizing each child’s potential.
Bernice Weissbourd was born on Chicago’s south side in 1923. As a young woman, she studied classical piano at the Julliard School, and music remained a joyous part of her life.
On October 31, 1946, she married Bernard Weissbourd, a scientist, lawyer, pre-eminent real estate developer and civic leader. Lifelong loving companions, they were devoted to family, community and progressive action. They had four children and moved from Chicago’s south side to Evanston in 1959.
When her youngest child started school in 1962, Bernice began her early childhood career in earnest, becoming an early childhood teacher and program director for many years before becoming a national leader in the early child development and family support movement.
In 1976, Bernice co-founded Family Focus, a Chicago area non-profit providing community-based support for families with young children that grew to seven neighborhood service centers. Family Focus was a model for more than 20,000 programs operating today, in schools and neighborhoods around the Unites States.
In 1981, Bernice was the impetus for organizing a national meeting of state and local advocates for family support, professional and academic leaders and families themselves to share their ideas and experiences. The Family Resource Coalition (later named Family Support America) emerged from this meeting to become the national voice for family support, with Bernice serving as its President. A few years later, she was instrumental in the founding of Chicago’s Ounce of Prevention Fund, which utilized the principles of family support in its programs for teen parents.
Bernice’s national public and civic service included serving as President of the American Orthopsychiatric Association and Vice-President of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. She served as a Congressional appointee to the National Commission on Children and on the Administration for Children’s and Families’ Advisory Committee on Services for Families with Infants and Toddlers, which established Early Head Start.
She was also a prolific writer. She wrote a column on two-year olds for Parents magazine for more than 15 years and co-authored two books: America’s Family Support Programs (1987) and Putting Families First: America’s Family Support Movement and the Challenge of Change (1994). She was a lecturer at the University of Chicago, School of Service Administration from 1994 to 1999.
Family and community were not only professional preoccupations. Bernice was devoted to her family and to her extraordinary community of friends of all ages. She was known by all who knew her for her warmth and generosity, and she delighted in gathering friends and family in her home.
Coming of age during years of extraordinary economic and political turmoil, she developed a keen interest in the possibilities for progressive change which guided her many political and philanthropic engagements and stayed with her until the end of her days. Throughout her life she was committed to racial and economic justice. She left the world a little better than she found it.
She is survived by her children, Burt (Dorothy), Ruth Grant (Steve), Robert (Marie), Richard (Avery), 11 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren.