Making a Difference in the Lives of Children

infant-adult-handOne thing I’ve discovered over the years is that seemingly small efforts can make a huge difference in someone’s life.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I came to Vermont from New York City in 1996 with my husband and infant son to take a job in higher education. At the time, I was focused on my growing family and my job. Like most working parents, this consumed my time and energy.

As my children grew, I looked for a way to give back to the community. Working with young children was important to me.

Finding a way to give back

In 2006, David Leatherwood, Robin Shield and I founded the Children’s Fund, a component fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation that focuses on children in the Upper Valley. We invest in charities that work with at-risk children and provide support to help them build their self-esteem through sports and outdoor activities.

Last year, I also joined the board of the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children. I was attracted to the Permanent Fund because of its unique approach and focus on very young children. The Permanent Fund works through focused initiatives (Vermont Birth to Three, Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative and Let’s Grow Kids) and brings together (and collaborates with) other funders to make strategic, systemic change in Vermont’s early care and education system.

Stories of courage and making a difference

When I am asked why I choose to invest in children, I like to share a couple of stories.
One story is about a middle school aged girl who lived with her aunt and uncle because her own parents couldn’t take care of her. The Children’s Fund provided funding for running shoes and coaches for her school cross country team. Despite the adversity and challenges she faced in her young life, this student found a sense of purpose through running. Now, the running shoes alone didn’t make the difference—she had the resilience and courage within herself—the shoes simply helped make it possible for her to run. Support from our foundation, a compassionate coach and loving aunt and uncle helped her build her self-confidence and overcome adversity in her life.

Another story comes from our work with an organization called WISE. WISE provides advocacy, crisis services and community education to those affected by domestic and sexual violence. WISE works with students and schools to prevent violence before it affects young lives. Last year through support from the Children’s Fund, WISE was able to engage students in every middle and high school across seven school districts in the greater Upper Valley. After learning about WISE during a classroom presentation, a student shared with her principal that she and her mom were living in a domestic abuse situation. It took a lot of strength and courage for her to share this experience with anyone. As a result of this student stepping forward, WISE was able to provide support to the girl and her mother and continues to help them through a very complicated and difficult situation.

The resilience of children

I’ve learned through the Children’s Fund that children can be incredibly resourceful and resilient. Although the Children’s Fund tends to reach them when they are a little older, I know from my work with the Permanent Fund that providing safe, healthy and nurturing environments during the earliest years can prevent the need for help later. Right now, I’m lucky enough to work with children of all ages.

So why invest in kids: because of their amazing capacity to be courageous, hopeful and resilient; because they are the future; because they deserve the best life has to offer.
If you’d like to make a difference for children, I offer this guidance: Identify where you can make a difference. Start small. Work with others who share that passion. You’ll be amazed at the difference it can make.

Permanent Fund Board Member Jenny Williams is a joint venture partner to Norwich Partners and is executive director of the Children’s Fund in Lebanon, NH. This article also appeared in the Champlain Business Journal.

Why Babies Matter to Business

Learning why babies matter to business

Several years ago as a member of the Vermont Business Roundtable, I attended an annual meeting at Basin Harbor where I first learned about the latest “brain science” in relation to early childhood development. The Roundtable had long been a big proponent for early childhood issues, but something changed for me that day. Maybe it was being a relatively new grandfather marveling at those new human beings developing before my eyes or maybe it was that the message that day was so compelling on its own. Regardless, I became convinced that the greatest opportunity we have to improve our economy and our community, in so many ways, is in how we support and invest in our youngest citizens.

It wasn’t long before I joined Rick Davis and the board of the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children.

The economic case for early childhood education

In the program “Are We Crazy About Our Kids?”, economists and others present a powerful economic case for supporting quality early childhood experiences and why this should be of importance to every business in America. It includes much of the same “brain science” message I heard in Basin Harbor. This segment is a supporting piece of the “The Raising of America” documentary series—to be aired on PBS later in 2015—that was recently previewed across Vermont by the Let’s Grow Kids campaign and its many supporting partners. I invite you to take a look, and perhaps you, like I, will feel that sense of urgency and that need to get involved and make a difference for all of Vermont’s children.

Tom MacLeay, treasurer and board member of the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children, is board chair and former CEO of National Life Group

The Challenge of Quality Child Care

3082839059_43055ea50d_z (1)I moved to Norwich, Vermont from New York City in 1996 with a 14-month-old son and my husband. I was coming to Vermont to take a position in higher education. We were a young family, excited about the future and raising our children in beautiful Vermont.

The search for child care options

When we arrived in Vermont and began our search for child care, we had no idea it would be so difficult. We were coming from a situation where we were fortunate to be able to have someone come into our home and care for our infant son. It hadn’t been difficult to find someone to provide the quality of care that we were looking for—but that was in New York City. Now in Vermont, we found ourselves struggling to find a center or child care provider who even had an opening for our son!

I began to question whether I would be able to start my new job. I remember thinking: if it is so difficult for us to find quality child care, how are other families with working moms making it work?

The search for child care was an extremely eye-opening experience for us, especially as young parents. I quickly learned that many families signed up for waiting lists at child care facilities early in their pregnancies or even before becoming pregnant! I also learned that finding the type of quality care we were looking for was nothing to be taken for granted—it was extremely difficult to find the situation that would work for our family and our children.

That was 18 years ago. Today in Vermont we have the Step Ahead Recognition System (also called STARS), which can help parents identify those providers who go above and beyond what is typically required of any child care program. Providers can earn up to five stars when they make their child care programs better, based on certain quality standards. Still, we have just over half (56%) of providers participating in the state’s STARS quality rating system. The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children is working through Vermont Birth to Three to help increase that participation rate.

Fragile structure of the child care business

When you look deeper into the business side of child care, it’s easy to see why quality places can be hard to find. The economics of running a child care business are tough. So many families—even with both parents working—cannot afford to pay the “true cost” of caring for their children. And, child care businesses cannot afford to pay enough to keep great teachers on their staff. Too often the good teachers are biding their time at a child care center until an opening appears at a local school district that can pay much higher salaries. So it becomes a vicious cycle.

Quality child care is a societal issue

I see the quest for quality child care as an issue bigger than the children and individual families it affects. It becomes an issue for our companies when their employees can’t find quality care. It becomes an issue for our communities when our children are not getting the solid start in life they need to be successful, productive citizens in the future. All our children deserve the best opportunity to succeed—and it’s in all of our interests to help make that possible.

The Permanent Fund’s work

In the end, we were fortunate to find a wonderful center to care for our children. Our three children are now teenagers, yet I continue to be thankful every day for the child care teachers they had who were also incredible resources for us as young parents. We learned so much from them!

But we still have much work ahead of us to transform the system of caring for our children in Vermont. That’s why I am so excited about the work the Permanent Fund is doing. As a board member, I can bring a first-hand experience of the child care challenges faced by working parents. And I am proud to be part of an organization that is striving to raise the quality of child care throughout Vermont while making it accessible for all children and families.

Permanent Fund Board Member Jennifer Williams, joint venture partner with Norwich Partners, is also executive director of the Children’s Fund of the Upper Valley.

Photo CC via flickr Craig Allen

The Science is Clear: Children Need Adults to Step Up

The Science Is Clear: Children Need Adults to Step Up

A popular song once asked – “What’s love got to do with it?”  For those of us who are working to make sure that our youngest children have what they need, we need to ask a similar question:  What’s adults got to do with it?

Recent groundbreaking research on brain development has shown us that children have a critical window in their brain development between birth and age five. Responsive and attentive interactions between young children and the adults around them during this period form strong neural connections and shape the architecture of the brain.  This is why every single interaction with babies and preschoolers matters so much.  Indeed, fostering strong development in those early years is vitally important to children’s success in life.

But the window doesn’t slam shut when children turn five.

What-Kids-Need posterThe brain is open throughout life

The brain is still open to intervention and change throughout life, with some areas still maturing in the early 20s. That doesn’t mean we should wait until then. It just opens up a wider window and invites us to step in as soon as we can and go as long we can.

Research also says that the chain of adults who are part of children’s lives starting at birth can have a profound impact on what happens to children and how their lives are shaped.  Instead of throwing up our hands in despair when confronted by the many problems that children face, we can instead direct a laser-like focus on the adults who touch their lives every day.

Video from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University

That is what the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University and its Director, Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, are talking about in a compelling video (below) that offers a theory of change for children that we, as adults, can act on.

We all know that living day to day in toxic stress is not good for children: they do not do well in the midst of violence, neglect, hunger, and anxiety.  But what we seem to have forgotten is that the toxic stressors that young children experience also can come from the lives of the adults in their communities:  The skills that we know young children need to thrive are the very same skills that parents and caregivers and aunties and uncles and neighbors and family friends need (and may not have) to hold down jobs, to create stable routines at home, and to be there for kids when they cry, when they are angry, when they are asking questions, when they are looking for hugs, when they are unsure and confused, when they are worried, when they are sick, when they need something or someone and are not sure how to ask…..

Family stressors and the role of adults

While we need better policies to help remove all the stressors facing families and particularly those families who are very vulnerable and isolated and poor – what we must also do is help the adults better understand and take up their roles in the lives of kids. Many of us who are grown and doing well today grew up poor, living in less than ideal circumstances.  But the adults in our lives – at home, at church, at school, and next door – never let poverty and bad situations define us.  They shielded us. They encouraged us. They taught us.  This is not impossible work; it is simply work we have forgotten how to do, were never taught, or tragically decided that we do not want to do.

Too often as a society we talk about how we want to “save” the children – but to do that, in addition to creating policies that make our community environments safe, stable, and enriching, we must be willing to “redeem” the adults in their lives, starting as early as possible and continuing through their 20s.

We invite you to think about how you and your organization are “redeeming” adults on behalf of young children.  And if you are not, how could you?

What’s adults got to do with it?  Everything…..

Building Adult Capabilities to Improve Child Outcomes:
A Theory of Change

This post is part of a larger effort for the Children and Family Fellows Network’s #WhatKidsNeed campaign.

The Informal Curriculum

Is the education of our children simply a function of what schools try to do?  How  about all the other influences that shape children’s learning?  Children get “education” from everything around them, and, in a sense, from what is not there for them.  You could call it the Informal Curriculum.  Children are full-time learners, and can learn the useless and the harmful as readily as the strengths we’d like them to gain.  Importantly, what they learn, or fail to learn, in the world outside of school, they bring to school and it affects how teachable they are.

Ask any thoughtful senior teacher about today’s pupils and you hear that overall they are more “needy”, less attentive, less disciplined and often less interested.  What’s going on?

Surely it’s time for adults to talk with each other very seriously about that question.  Here are a couple of key topics to consider.

There’s the world of “entertainment”,  and modern digital communication devices.  We know our children are inundated with images and messages from TV and videos and every other medium.  For many children, the “entertainment” world may be a greater influence than their schools and perhaps even their parents.  Three issues come up.

Is “entertainment” like junk food?  A little doesn’t hurt but a lot can cause malnutrition – in this case, malnutrition of mind and spirit.  Simply put, time spent on “entertainment” is time not spent on something nourishing.

Is “entertainment” toxic?  We’ve asked that about violence and the cheapening of sex, but we could ask also about the way many important human values are mocked.  For example, in TV comedies set in schools, study is said to be for nerds, while the real kids go for fun and games.

Is “entertainment” damaging to the human brain?  We’ve seen how films and videos have continuously escalated the speed of images, the pace of stories, the loudness of sounds.  How can a child take his hyperstimulated nervous system to school and not find school work slow and boring?  How can a child not expect her teacher to be as entertaining, at a fast clip, as last night’s video?  Schools can’t do much with kids that lack the required attention span.  Attention-deficit disorder may be partly ascribable to chemicals, but surely it is also a conditioned state of a nervous system flooded with multiple streams of  chaotic “information”.

Another topic: Children used to grow up in closely knit communities with stable values that were supported within and outside the family, but now children encounter change and contradictions everywhere.  They badly need adult help in sorting things out, but, sadly, this is also a time when adults are busier than ever.  Are children suffering a deficit in mentors and models?  If they don’t find them in everyday life, schools are hard pressed to make up the deficit.  It’s difficult to teach children who are insecure and perhaps depressed.

A third topic:  Schools everywhere report too many children arriving at school lacking a basic sense of self-discipline and of the good manners that make a community run smoothly.  In elevating the values of individualism and creativity, have we lost some degree of the self-discipline without which we edge toward anarchy?  We can’t dump this problem on the schools.

If anything is to be done about these aspects of the informal curriculum, it’ll have to be done on a community-wide basis.  It can’t be done sufficiently by parents acting alone.

It will take community-wide initiatives to counter the intrusion of the “entertainment” world on our children’s minds and hearts, and to provide the mentoring they need to achieve life-skills and emotional maturation

That old aphorism “It takes a village to raise a child” is still true.  It’s still the “village” that sets the informal curriculum.  We just have to figure out how to build “village” in the modern era.

One additional note:  There is good research to suggest that among older children (and perhaps ‘older’ starts very early these days) the influence of peer values and preoccupations and behaviors is stronger than that of parents.  And the peer group, once it gets its hands on digital communication devices, is further empowered to exclude other worlds.

Arnold Golodetz, MD