Childhood Program Benefits Foreseen

July 29, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Grand Rapids means business about early childhood, and a new commission is launching an effort to support children and their families that is expected to pay dividends in work-force development.

First Steps is a three-pronged program from the Early Childhood Children’s Commission. The program, which is funded by the Heart of West Michigan United Way, the Steelcase and Frey foundations and the state program Early Children Investment Corp., has been in the works since the commission was formed three years ago, Executive Director Ben Emdin said.

“It really kind of gets back to the issue of work-force development: How can we develop a work force that’s more competitive? It’s a huge issue in this country,” said Emdin, whose career has spanned business and public education.

 First Steps includes:

**Establishing a “health care home” for children, aimed at cutting through logistical and cultural barriers to health care and reducing the need for hospitalization and emergency room usage. This program, involving 14,000 to 15,000 children, is expected to be launched this summer.

**In-hospital visits for first-time parents and follow-up home visits within the first few weeks of the child’s life, with information on local services and how to reach them. “Welcome Home, Baby” is expected to begin as a pilot project late this year or in early 2009.

**Professional development, training and coaching to child caregivers from licensed providers to family members and neighbors, and establishment of a quality-rating system.

The focus on early childhood development makes sense to West Michigan Whitecaps CEO and Managing Partner Lew Chamberlin, a commission member.

“From a personal end and business perspective, my focus has always been on children and families. That’s kind of what we do out here at the ball park,” Chamberlin said.

“When I was invited to meet with the Early Childhood commission, I kind of jumped at the chance. What they proposed really made a lot of sense to me: developing a holistic approach to early childhood issues, systemic and thorough, rather than dealing with it in these separate silos.”

Emdin said First Steps has enough broad-based support to help the commission reach its goals.

“It’s a broad collaboration. We’ve got all the major players sitting around the table,” Emdin said. “This is different and new. We have people … who don’t have an early childhood background, who have learned about this and believe it’s an important strategy for our community and have gotten involved.”

Those involved include Doug DeVos and Kate Pew Wolters as commission co-chairs. In addition to Chamberlin, members include Calvin College President Gaylen Byker; Schuler Books & Music co-owner Cecile Fehsenfeld; Dr. Khan Nedd, medical director, Infusion Associates; former Grand Rapids Community College President Juan Olivarez; and educators and community volunteers Betty Burton Groce, Sue Jandernoa, Kathy Muir and Karen O’Donovan.

Ex-officio members include Steelcase Foundation President Susan Broman; Great Start Collaborative of Kent County Chair Lynne Ferrell; United Way President Bob Haight; Kent Intermediate School District Superintendent Kevin Konarska; Carol Paine-McGovern, chair of the Kent County Family & Children’s Coordinating Council; and Frey Foundation President Milt Rohwer.

Emdin said the current budget is $1.5 million, including $300,000 from the ECIC public-private partnership, which combines state and federal funds with foundation support to back 21 Great Start initiatives in Michigan. He said it’s unclear how large the local Early Childhood Children’s Commission staff might be, but that “five or six” people would be working on the health care home program.

ECIC’s goals are reflected in the First Steps programs that are being planned, said Broman, who also chairs the ECIC board. She said that while the goals in health care, universal visits with first-parents and caregiver education are shared, every community has its own priorities and interpretations.

“This is an evolution in our community. Some of that past work really informed the work how the community is moving forward and was really necessary to get the community to focus like this,” Broman said.

Steelcase Foundation provided $300,000 to launch the Early Childhood Children’s Commission, she said.

“There are a number of different pieces to the puzzle. First Step actually pulls all the pieces together,” Broman said. 

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