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.

2014 Bright Spots in Early Care and Education

bright spots - cat with sunglassesWhen I am out and about talking to folks, I like to refer to Vermont’s “bright spots”—processes, projects and collaborations that are working well in our early care and education system. As I prepared a recent communication to the Permanent Fund board, I was pleased to report on many “bright spots” that we were able to celebrate during the past year and I wanted to share them here.

Welcome to a new board member

Dr. Breena Holmes, director of Maternal and Child Health in Vermont and chair-elect of the National Council on School Health for the American Academy of Pediatrics, joined the Permanent Fund board. Breena is on the pediatric faculty at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and is a key figure in Vermont’s early childhood movement. In just a short time, Breena has already contributed by helping us forge a partnership between Vermont Birth to Three and the Vermont Health Department on an exciting provider training initiative related to developmental screenings.

New leadership and growth for Vermont Birth to Three

Becky Gonyea joined Vermont Birth to Three in April as our new executive director. Under Becky’s leadership, Vermont Birth to Three met the goal of having 75% of home-based child care providers participate in the STARS quality rating system–up from 38% at the beginning of 2014!

Universal pre-K passed

The Vermont pre-K bill (Act 166) passed by the Vermont Legislature last year will make Vermont the first state in the nation to offer universal pre-K for both 3- and 4-year-olds. We will be very much involved in the implementation via the Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative as they work with many Vermont communities identified as “early adopters” of universal pre-K.

Vermont received Federal pre-K expansion grant

We provided funding for a professional grant writer who successfully competed for a Federal pre-K expansion grant. As a result, Vermont will receive up to $33 million to build capacity for low income children to attend full-day preschool. (This is in addition to our successful Race to the Top/Early Learning Challenge grant last year in the amount of $37 million.)

Strengthening Families training grant

The Child Development Division awarded us $1.02 million to implement Strengthening Families training for home-based child care professionals in six regions over the next three years. This supports our two-generational approach to child care: Well-trained child care professionals, who see families twice a day, five days a week, are in a unique position to develop the critical trust and relationships that enable them to have meaningful engagement with parents.

Let’s Grow Kids launchedchild_pf

We successfully launched the Let’s Grow Kids public education and awareness campaign that aims to raise understanding about the importance of the first five years of development in a child’s life. More than 3,000 Vermonters have signed the LGK pledge, indicating their support to giving every Vermont child a strong start in life. More than 200 volunteers signed up to speak at Town Meetings across the state, educating their neighbors about the impact of the first five years on cognitive, social and emotional development.

Vermont’s preschool census grows

The Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative supported 21 projects, serving 23 communities and adding more than 400 preschool children to the school census in the fall of 2014.

Increased funding capacity

We’ve increased our funding capacity from $1 million per year in recent years to $3 million per year. When combined with the support of our funding partners, Permanent Fund projects will total more than $5 million this year.

Laying the foundation for the next ten years

Last year, our board also made an important decision that will affect how we move forward. While we are still investing in our communities and nonprofit organizations, we have placed a priority on funding and operating our own initiatives with a concentrated focus on the next ten years. In doing so, we’ve reframed our mission: “To assure that every Vermont child has access to high quality and affordable early care and education—by the year 2025.”

What does this mean?

Placing a 10-year time frame on our mission creates a sense of urgency and reminds us that we do not have a moment to waste. We will spend down our endowment and put all of our chips on the table during the next 10 years. The science and research tells us that building a strong foundation in the early years of our children’s lives is too important of an issue for Vermont to wait—we must seize the moment.

Working in close collaboration with our funding partners, especially the Turrell Fund and the A.D. Henderson Foundation, we will continue to develop and expand our board of directors and will develop a 10-year strategic plan to reflect this change in mission. We are also continuing our search for an executive director to serve as the CEO and help lead this effort.

Building on the bright spots

These are what I saw as the many “bright spots” of 2014—each and every one a cause for celebration no doubt. Despite this progress, however, the heavy lifting is not done.
We’d like to see Vermont build upon what’s working well as we all work toward that ultimate “bright spot”—a high quality and affordable early care and education that gives all Vermont children the opportunity to succeed in life.

Early Learning Initiative Pilot Launched with PF Support

February 12 was a special day for those of us who braved the cold to attend Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger’s news conference at the Visiting Nurse Association’s (VNA) family room. I joined Mayor Weinberger, Governor Peter Shumlin and many others from the early childhood community to speak about the Mayor’s new early learning initiative, which is designed to improve kindergarten readiness, reduce special education costs and other public spending and help break the cycle of multi-generational poverty in Vermont’s Queen City. The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children has committed $122,000 for the initial planning stage of the pilot project that will move from concept to implementation in 2016.
mayor weinberger
During the news conference, Mayor Weinberger shared highlights of the program, which includes three components: home visiting for pregnant mothers and new parents; scholarships for high quality child care; and, rigorous evaluation. The Mayor discussed the challenges that children living in poverty face and referred to projects in other cities that have shown promise in breaking the cycle of poverty.

Governor Peter Shumlin echoed the Mayor’s concerns about children living in poverty and said we cannot afford to leave any children behind.
I touched on the Permanent Fund’s mission and reiterated the importance of investing in the early years of life by sharing the latest research on the brain science.

There are many excellent organizations and early educators doing good work in Burlington and the pilot will help these groups collaborate more effectively under the leadership of the Mayor’s team. The pilot design is based on concepts proposed in a white paper written by educator and consultant Jessica Nordhaus and produced through a partnership involving the City, the United Way of Chittenden County, and philanthropic support.

The Permanent Fund is pleased to invest in projects that can demonstrate to all Vermonters that a strong foundation built upon quality early experiences for our children leads to kindergarten readiness, school success, and, ultimately, contributes to a trained workforce and a strong economy. Mayor Weinberger and his team can offer the strong leadership and collaboration that is essential to transform the early childhood system in Burlington and we look forward to working with him and the many others involved in the early learning initiative.

Julie Coffey, executive director of Building Bright Futures, Diana Langston, director of the Burlington School District’s Essential Early Education Center, Judy Peterson, president and CEO of VNA of Chittenden and Grand Isle Counties, Mary Alice McKenzie, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Burlington, TJ Donovan, Chittenden County State’s Attorney, and Dave Hartnett, Burlington Ward 4 city councilor also spoke at the Mayor’s news conference.

Resources for more information on the Burlington Early Learning Initiative:

White paper (.pdf)
Advisory Board Members (.pdf)
Mayor’s news release

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

A Statewide Educational Campaign To Focus on the First Years


It was such a thrill to celebrate the launch of the Let’s Grow Kids campaign on Burlington’s Waterfront in late April. Although spring wasn’t yet fully in bloom in Vermont, the launch event, like the time of year, signifies new beginnings.

The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children is one of three funders supporting Let’s Grow Kids (our long-time funding partners, the A.D. Henderson Foundation and the Turrell Fund, are the others).

Some have asked us, “Why fund a campaign? Why not continue your focus on the other PF initiatives?” So with these questions in mind, we set out to share our thinking — and the impetus for this campaign — in this blog post.

A continuing collaboration on early childhood

Certainly the campaign represents a new tactic or initiative for the Permanent Fund, however, our focus on early childhood remains firm. The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children has been collaborating with the A.D. Henderson Foundation and the Turrell Fund for years to support our child-focused initiatives: Vermont Birth to Three, the Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative, and mentoring (formerly the Vermont Mentoring Funders Collaborative, now Mobius). We have made an impact through these demonstration projects so this work and our collaboration will continue.

We’ve also come to realize that to truly make a long-term, lasting impact, it was vitally important that we engage the general public—beyond parents and the early childhood community—and help the broader public understand why this work is so important.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “…with public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed….”

Education to mobilize public support

We found through our statewide research that many Vermonters were not aware of the significance of the early years of development, especially from birth to age 3. We now know through settled brain science that 80% of a child’s brain development occurs during the first three years and that the early experiences and relationships in a child’s life are so important to their future success.LGK_90_brain_development2-01

So with this research in hand, our charge was clear: We needed to increase awareness about the important early years of development to mobilize support for a stronger, more integrated system that serves all Vermont children and families well.

What the data shows

Here in Vermont, we have data—like rates of kindergarten readiness, third grade literacy, developmental screenings, high school graduation—that tell us things can be better and must get better if we want to strengthen our families, our communities and our economy.

At the event we heard that more than half of Vermont’s children were deemed not ready for kindergarten. (When children show up at kindergarten not ready to learn, they continue to fall further behind and rarely catch up.) We also heard that 32% of our third graders were reading below grade level. Only 32% of our children age 0 to 5 received developmental screenings in 2011-12—but our state goal is 95%.LGK_kindergarten3-01

We also know that things have changed since many of us grew up. In Vermont, 70% of working parents with children under the age of 6 are in the workforce—that’s quite different from the Ozzie and Harriet scenarios that many of us may have grown up with. And it means many of our children are spending as much as 40 hours per week—or more—in care outside the home. So it’s clear that parents are no longer the only ones raising their children. It truly takes a community.LGK_70_parents_work-01

Join the campaign

While the Permanent Fund, A.D. Henderson Fund and the Turrell Fund continue to work on the initiatives already in place, we are working to broaden the base of those who share our vision that all Vermont children should have the opportunity to thrive and the chance to lead happy, healthy, and productive lives. After all, when our children are happy and healthy, we all win.

We hope you will join our cause. Find out how you can get involved in Let’s Grow Kids and help us in our effort.