Investment in Kids, Communities = Investment in Health and Future

Jul 16, 2013, 3:59 PM, Posted by Michelle Larkin

Children swinging on swings in a playground.

As a parent, I want my daughter to have every opportunity to succeed in life. Some would say I obsess about it, making sure she’s exposed to all kinds of music, sports, languages, people, places, and families. My spouse and I give her a stable home filled with love and structure, and we teach her how to face challenges and learn from them, believing this will help her make good choices and have every opportunity to be healthy and happy in her life.

You might be asking, “what in the world does this have to do with the work of the Foundation?” Well, last month the Foundation convened the 2013 Commission to Build a Healthier America to discuss the importance of early childhood development (pre-K education that help kids learn the skills they need to succeed in school and life) and community development (not just economic development, but using resources to create communities with safe housing, quality education, parks, and a thriving economy).

For me, it made total sense. If our nation doesn’t invest in these two areas we can’t possibly grow smart, healthy, kind, and empathetic kids. Nor can we create communities where everyone has the opportunity to live a healthy and meaningful life.

We have a disconnect in our nation—we talk a good game of recognizing that kids and communities are important, but fail to invest our resources to create choice and opportunity for everyone. In preparation for the Commission meeting, I had the opportunity to join the Commissioners on a visit to the Kenilworth area of D.C., an economically distressed and predominantly African-American neighborhood. Kenilworth is isolated from the rest of D.C., and power plants, incendiary refuse disposal plants, limited public transportation, and little job opportunities plague the community. But Kenilworth also has assets—community parks, new housing for seniors, a new early childhood development facility, and, most importantly, residents who are committed to this community’s success.

We have a disconnect in our nation—we talk a good game of recognizing that kids and communities are important, but fail to invest our resources to create choice and opportunity for everyone.

We spent our time at the new early childhood development facility, Educare. Once you walk through those doors, you forget about all the signs of poverty outside. I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere of hope and opportunity. Dawn Smith, Master Teacher at Educare, led us on a tour and talked about how the teachers focus on, not only the children in their care, but the families with whom the children spend the majority of their time. This neighborhood has limited public transportation for people to get to  jobs in other areas of the city, so we spent some time discussing how many of the kids’ parents struggle to find both work and safe, affordable housing.

Educare engages the families in helping their children develop and learn the life skills needed to be a healthy adult. I could tell this was more than a job for the Educare staff; they love their students and recognize that they are providing a place for children, their families and the larger community come together to learn how to overcome the challenges of the neighborhood and connect to desperately needed services.

By nurturing our nation’s smallest citizens, Educare is helping to develop the skills they will need as adults to live healthy, productive lives. You can’t deny the value of early child development and education when you talk to the children, their families and teachers. According to a recent Washington Post article, ”researchers at the University of North Carolina who have evaluated Educare found that children who participate in the program for at least two years begin kindergarten with the same skills as their middle-income peers. Children in Educare also had stronger vocabulary and social skills compared with low-income children who did not attend.”

But stronger vocabulary and social skills are things that all children need, not just the lucky ones that have access to an Educare facility. Shouldn’t we, as a nation, be able to provide all children with the opportunity to thrive? Shouldn’t we be able to help communities facing significant challenges to overcome them? Why should some families have fewer opportunities to the basic things that create a culture of health just because of where they live? Access to healthy foods? Access to quality early childhood services and education? Access to jobs that pay a living wage? Access to open spaces to play and come together as a community? These are things that I want for daughter…for all children…to ensure that every child is given every opportunity to succeed from their families, their schools, and their community.

I’d love to hear from others about what else could or should be done to ensure that children have every opportunity, from their earliest days, to develop the skills they need to live a healthy and fulfilling life?