Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 2, 2010

Group wants to level playing field for kids


TRAVERSE CITY — Colorful construction paper feathers waited to be glued by little hands to paper turkeys at the Great Lakes Children's Museum.

Dozens of children and parents gathered to make holiday craft projects, play and explore the museum on a cold, pre-Thanksgiving weekday. At one table, small children ate a snack. Nearby, a mom helped her son, almost 3 years old, attach a red ribbon to a nearly completed craft.

The museum is one of numerous local agencies that offer activities, support, health care or education for parents and their newborns and toddlers. Now, many of these groups, including the museum, are working together to try to ensure the best possible future for the community's youngest members.

"Our goal is for every child to arrive at the door of kindergarten ready for life: healthy, safe and prepared for school," said Mary Manner, coordinator of the Great Start Traverse Bay/Manistee Collaborative.

The collaborative is one of about 50 such groups in Michigan, and part of the statewide Early Childhood Investment Corp. The regional collaborative covers six counties and includes partners from private and public agencies, businesses, schools and parents.

Great Start primarily focuses on children from birth to age 5 in the areas of child care and early education, pediatric and family health, social and emotional health, family support and parent leadership. Groups address each of the five topics and, through a strategic plan created in January, set out to identify and meet goals in each category. A child-care goal, for example, is to expand access to affordable, quality child care and to ensure all families who choose to can send their 3- and 4-year-olds to preschool.

The collaborative's purpose is not to provide services, but to connect early childhood resources, identify program needs or unnecessary duplications, and use research to arrive at solutions.

"What have we got, what additional do we need? The goal is not to expect ... legislative solutions in every case," Manner said. "Not everything that communities do (is) going to be done exclusively through taxpayer dollars."

Investing in early childhood pays off with better prepared children and benefits companies whose employees rely on child- care services, she said.

Among the factors that pose a risk to a child's development are indicators such as the mother's education level and family structure. Manner wants to focus on areas where she thinks Great Start and its partners can make a difference.

"We can't as a community mandate that every child is born into a two-parent family," she said. "From a public policy perspective, I want to work on the things that I can do something about."

Helping teenagers and young mothers finish high school is one place where strides can be made, Manner said.

"We know that the children of those parents are at risk," she said.

Part of what Great Start can do is to educate parents and the public, said Pam Ward, executive director of Child Care Connections. The Traverse City-based nonprofit is a resource and referral agency that helps parents find child care through a database of providers. It also lends educational materials to child-care providers and offers site visits and assessments to child-care homes or centers.

Ward said raising the quality of child care is a top early childhood priority. The state is trying to find a way to rate child-care providers based on their program, curriculum and relationships with parents.

Great Start is one way "to get the word out" and to inform parents, Ward said.

Early intervention makes a big difference when it comes to addressing development issues. That's one reason why the Healthy Futures program emphasizes access to health care for expectant mothers, as well as home visits from nurses who live in the same community. Healthy Futures is among the Great Start partners and is itself a partnership of Munson Healthcare, health providers and regional health departments.

"What works is a very early connection to resources," said Betsy Hardy, Healthy Futures coordinator and registered nurse. "Our goal is to connect early and to connect often and then, really, kind of get out of the way."

She sees her program as "a starting place" that links families and new mothers to community resources. The Great Start collaborative is one way to connect "a system of care" and group a "broad array of services" for families instead of each program, nonprofit or provider working on its own.

"The starting place during pregnancy has to be access to care, because that's just obvious, women very early in their pregnancy need access to regular, early, timely prenatal care," Hardy said.

There are other indicators that point to successful child development. The baby needs to connect and "establish a strong bond" with his parent, Hardy said.

The Healthy Futures' nurses "aren't therapists," but working with other local resources can provide families with a full spectrum of services and knowledge, including that "infant mental health" component, she said.

"It's time for communities, I think to begin talking about this," Hardy said.

To learn more about Great Start, its partners and strategic plan, visit the website