By Stephen Lilienthal
East of the River
East of the River kids may someday understand that their neighborhoods and their parents’ income and education levels exerted a substantial impact on the direction of their own lives.
Many parents are struggling to do the best for their infants and toddlers (0-3 years old). But worries about feeding, clothing, and housing their families, much less transportation, healthcare, childcare, and employment, often take a toll. Unfortunately the toll on infants comes at a time which academic research identifies as most crucial to future learning, health, and behavior.
The Bainum Family Foundation (BFF: www.bainumfdn.org) has launched a $10 million, five-year investment to reduce the gaps adversely impacting many parents and their young children in Wards 7 and 8. “There’s a real potential to think boldly,” stresses Miriam Calderon, BFF’s senior director of early learning. “It will not be one program, agency, or funding-stream model that makes a difference” in helping more children start pre-kindergarten ready to learn, but ensuring services are delivered with more coordination and consistency.
It’s reasonable for people to wonder whether a $10 million program can exert enough impact to surmount difficulties ranging from easily corrected developmental disabilities in children to homelessness and domestic violence. BFF contends that several initiatives can broaden the impact of its immediate work.
Bainum Foundation: A New Direction
BFF, with approximately a half-billion dollars in assets, was formed by the late Stewart W. Bainum and his wife Jane, with a mission to help impoverished students obtain an education. Coming of age in the Great Depression, Stewart Bainum never earned a college degree but became a successful entrepreneur, running the Manor Care nursing homes and Choice Hotels.
In 1988 Stewart Bainum promised 67 members of a class at Kramer Junior High School in Southeast DC that they would have scholarships to attend college. Three-quarters of the “Dreamers” finished high school, well above the level of their peers at Kramer. A BFF-sponsored evaluation of 29 participants in the “Dreamer” program nearly 20 years later showed 10 having completed some form of higher education. The report also noted that many Dreamers placed importance on receiving supporting services earlier, which helped them overcome poverty-related problems.
That finding helped to persuade Bainum’s daughter Barbara, a certified, licensed clinical social worker, now BFF’s president, to reorient the foundation’s direction. “Our focus is to dramatically reduce the vulnerability caused by poverty by providing children with high-quality education and support,” she explains in BFF’s 2015-20 strategic plan. Underpinning the new direction is BFF’s analysis of research examining how the well-being of parents influences children’s future lives.
Evening the Odds
That many children, often despite their parents’ best intentions, are being raised in trying conditions in Wards 7 and 8 is made clear by BFF’s December 2015 report, “Infants and Toddlers in the District of Columbia: A Statistical Look at Needs and Disparities.” Compared to “more affluent” areas of DC, specifically Wards 2 and 3, the report found that children born in Wards 7 and 8 are nearly 40 times more likely to be born to a teen mother; 20 times more likely to be raised in neighborhoods of “concentrated poverty” that often have higher crime rates and a greater percentages of problems linked to physical and mental health; and twice as likely to live in homes where no parent holds a stable job.
Calderon insists that not all is bleak for parents because the city “has many assets upon which to build.” DC children have healthcare coverage, and universal pre-K access starts at age three. BFF’s emphasis on improving and better integrating systems and services to aid parents and their young children, if successful, should help more children in Wards 7 and 8 start pre-K ready to learn.
Accomplishing that goal, says Calderon, depends on the young students’ having “strong supports,” such as parents who engage infants and toddlers in talk and play, and more economically secure households. Such supports are usually present in the lives of kids growing up in affluent Wards 2 and 3 but not always in Wards 7 and 8.
BFF Supporting Nonprofits
BFF recently announced $2.2 million in grants to eight providers of child- and healthcare services, including mental wellness, to help even the odds for Ward 7 and 8 children. These grants must be seen in action to be fully appreciated. Bright Beginnings Inc. and the Community of Hope are two such beneficiaries.
Bright Beginnings Inc. (BBI: www.brightbeginningsinc.org) provides early care and education for children whose parents are homeless or in transitional housing. BBI also helps parents achieve greater stability through employment or education. BBI’s High/Scope curriculum stresses creative problem solving and learning through play. In one class for pre-K children, a Head Start teacher reads “Mouse Soup.” Children are excited and interested. Lessons involving numbers and vocabulary are inserted into the reading. BBI also insists on daily attendance and encourages responsibility by helping children make choices in the classroom through leading certain activities.
Many families from Wards 7 and 8 commute to BBI’s Northwest DC location. To bring its assistance closer, BFF recently provided BBI with a grant to help design and construct a new facility in Southeast.
Yet providing effective programs for children is only one part of the puzzle. BFF also provided a grant to the Community of Hope (www.communityofhopedc.org) to provide home visits to forge partnerships with parents, helping them to bond with their infants. Parents receive emotional wellness assistance and learn how better to build a young child’s vocabulary. They learn that infants develop a greater sense of security when parents respond quickly to their cries.
Extending BFF’s Reach
BFF hopes to extend its reach through the recently formed the Birth-to-Three Policy Alliance, comprised of nearly 20 public policy organizations and service providers. The alliance will inform policymakers, city agencies, and social service providers about best early learning practices and the needs of children and families.
Another way BFF attempts to magnify its impact is through its partnership with a web-based platform provider of information about quality child care practices and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education Division of Early Learning will provide information about best childcare practices to licensed child development facilities within the District. Early Childhood Share DC can help to reduce costs and provide quality instructional advice for service providers.
Both initiatives can help increase the impact of BFF’s immediate work. Victoria Roberts, vice president of health services at Community of Hope, stresses that developing partnerships with Ward 7 and 8 parents and providers and using evidence-based practices can change the odds for young children and their families as they have in other communities. She says, “We need to make that commitment” in DC.