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We want every child entering kindergarten to be healthy and ready to succeed in school and in life.  Kate Pew Wolters, Co-Chair, First Steps Kent

Visiting nurse conducting an examination on baby

In the first three years of a toddler’s life, 85% of its brain develops. Everything during that time, from diet to speech skills and socialization, affects a child’s ability to be ready—or not—for kindergarten two years later. Kindergarten readiness can be an indicator of how well a child will do in the ensuing school years. And there’s a clear domino effect: When children are not developmentally ready for kindergarten, they often struggle to read by third grade. And those who don’t read well by the end of third grade are less likely to graduate from high school than their friends who do.

Roughly a quarter of all children in Kent County, Michigan, entered kindergarten at the beginning of this decade with challenges that hindered their ability to learn and progress. Eager to change that bleak picture, in 2009, a group of funders created First Steps Kent (FSK) as a public-private partnership to strengthen and coordinate early childhood services and to address barriers to learning for every child in the county before they enter kindergarten.

“Our goal was to develop a system of cohesive and collaborative services for children, working for the benefit of all,” says Kate Pew Wolters, a member of the commission that oversees FSK and whose foundation helps fund the organization. “We want every child entering kindergarten to be healthy and ready to succeed in school and in life.”

For that to happen, research shows that communities must invest in the development of their young children. High-quality learning must begin at birth. And parents need to be connected to a logical menu of services so they can access the education, skills, resources and opportunities that give their children the best chance for a strong start in life.

Ingrid Huber, RN CLC, is delighted to be part of the Welcome Home Baby program. Created by FSK, the program provides a gateway to the system of services available for families with young children in Kent County. It includes a no-cost, in-home visit with a registered nurse and every first-time parent in Kent County within 30 days of a baby’s birth. 

“I do a medical assessment of both baby and mom and offer everything from breastfeeding support and information about postpartum depression to resources for baby supplies and parent coaching classes,” says Ingrid, who is often peppered with questions from unsure parents. She also helps them understand when it’s time to call the doctor. “I offer support at a critical time. I am an educator, a confidence builder and community connector walking alongside them with the medical expertise they need.”

That one conversation with a visiting nurse can improve the future for both the parent and the child. Observes Ingrid, “…parents learn how to use their medical provider as a go-to person, which reduces the number of unnecessary trips to the ER. Feeding and sleeping go well. Questions are answered. This county’s wonderful resources are utilized by those who need them, and baby and parents thrive.”  Nearly 2,000 households accept this service annually. 

Play and Learn at Missionary Messiah Baptist Church in Grand Rapids

Continuing upstream, children under the age of five and their parents, grandparents and caregivers are invited to attend weekly 90-minute Play and Learn sessions, also a First Steps Kent partner program, offering neighborhood-based learning opportunities that meet parents and caregivers where they are. Teachers provide researched-based activities that encourage child development, reading and socialization, all in an atmosphere of playtime. Free books are also available along with take-home bags with plans and materials for constructive activities that can be done with the children at home. More than 2,500 Kent County kids have grown through this program, which helps them enter kindergarten ready to learn.    

At a recent Play and Learn at Missionary Messiah Baptist Church in Grand Rapids’ Baxter neighborhood, Eunice La Grone, a neighborhood childcare provider for more than 20 years, sits with Alani, who she brings to the program each week along with her granddaughter, Serenity. Eunice says with her infectious smile, “I wish we had this when my kids were little. Play and Learn has helped Alani open up—she used to be on me like glue, but she’ll talk to people now.” 

Eunice has seen this time and again, and so many other positive effects among the kids in her care. “We get to mingle with parents of different nationalities and our kids learn and play together. It helps us to be better parents, providers and people.  We have unity with each other, and I love that.”      

As was the vision of the founding commission members, there is now one comprehensive community plan for early care and education in Kent County. First Steps Kent continues to promote the coordination and alignment of more than two dozen partner organizations and programs that serve the needs of young children and their caregivers, and advocates for the rights and resources that foster kindergarten readiness for every child in Kent County.

“We carry the message and mission of the organization wherever we go,” says Kate Pew Wolters. “It is our true north.” 

To learn more about the system of services for young children in Kent County, visit successstartsearly.org.

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