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Strong Foundations For Our Youngest Children

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Sherri Killins Stewart, Ed. D.
Director of Systems Alignment and Integration
and Co-Director of State Services
The BUILD Initiative

As soon as Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, The BUILD Initiative knew that families who face significant barriers to and disconnection from supports and services would work hard to get what they needed for their children but have the least access. We thought it essential to reach out to them. During the past month, through Project HOPE, which supports state, tribal, and community leaders to increase access to state programs, services, and initiatives to improve health equity for children and families, BUILD has provided help in the form of small grants to each of the eight (8) Project HOPE focus communities.

The Grants

We decided the funding for the small grants would come from the dollars BUILD budgeted for a two-and-half day meeting in late-March with Project HOPE state and community leaders that was cancelled due to COVID-19. But we did not decide on our own how these grants should be spent. On the contrary, we knew that young children and their families, in partnership with community leaders, would best be able to assess and describe their own needs. Local leaders and parents within the eight Project HOPE focus communities had a solid understanding of the value of what they were working to provide for their children and families and had already begun conversations. Leaders knew what the greatest needs are and where the barriers lie concerning access to the basic goods and tools needed for managing during the pandemic, including transportation, food access, diapers, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). 

How the Funds Are Supporting Communities

To date, the grants have supported families in HOPE communities by covering the cost of the following:

  • Learning manipulatives, tools, and games put into kits for families with young children, including whiteboards, counting cubes, learning cards, sand, playdough, crayons, paper, and markers.
  • "Teach My" at-home learning kits for children birth to five to continue learning while childcare programs are closed.
  • Hand sanitizer, gloves, protective masks, and materials for making protective masks in the community.
  • Gift cards for families with children birth to five to purchase groceries, diapers, infant formula, and other necessary items. 
  • Children’s books, written by Native American authors, about the Native American experience.
  • Payment of utility bill debts so that electricity and heat are not cut off to families with children birth to five. 
  • Support of a community member who is supporting families in two ways: 1) by distributing goods and resources, and 2) virtually, to help them connect to resources during and after the pandemic, particularly those families with young children not connected to formal programs.
  • Chromebook computers for children zero to five to use for online learning and to access kindergarten readiness sites such as Born Ready, for parents of infants and toddlers. Having uniform technology also permits teachers to do more coordinated Zoom classes with students, allowing for a higher rate of connectivity for families. The Chromebooks also allow parents to conduct job searches or complete essential applications that link families to opportunity.
  • Tablets for younger children rising to Kindergarten to continue educational activities and programming.
  • Additional technology supplies, including headphones to reduce distractions for families so they can focus while they complete online applications and learning activities. 

What Have We Learned?
In our conversations with community and state leaders regarding the most effective use of these small grant funds, we are learning the following:

  • Except for tribal leaders, social service agencies and providers in the state do not know where most families with children age zero to five are living or how they are faring amid the pandemic if they were not connected to services before the pandemic.
  • Systems that seemed merely antiquated pre-COVID-19 now pose real threats to family security and well-being. For example, paper checks are still being given to WIC and SNAP beneficiaries, which are hard, if not impossible, to use for online grocery deliveries.  
  •  Many fear going to the store because they lack masks and gloves. 
  • Food distribution systems are often chaotic and not coordinated, with families learning at the last minute where pick-up sites are located. Distribution centers are running out of food 20 minutes after they open.
  • The needs of families facing structural barriers in accessing supports and services must be considered in designing universal strategies. We learned that families don’t just need food and diapers, but also technology such as computers. With libraries closed, many families don’t have the necessary tools to maintain benefits, find employment, and find learning activities for younger children. Additionally, we learned that sound-canceling headphones with microphones (not earbuds) are a vital tool since they allow parents to work and children to learn in homes that may not have multiple spaces. 
  • Lack of access to the health care system is a significant concern across the Project HOPE communities. As in many other disinvested, low-opportunity places, misinformation about the need for COVID-19 testing is a barrier to assuring public safety (i.e., only those who have traveled to China, Iran, or Italy or been near someone who tested positive for COVID-19 need a test). Some families fear that even when drive-by testing sites are established in these communities, families without a car or primary care physician will be left out. And families who have had bad experiences with health and social service providers in the past may be even warier about seeking COVID-19 prevention tips and treatment. 

To achieve equity, we must act to ensure young children and their families are connected to opportunity. We must make certain each and every young family is visible as systems are developed and designed to distribute universal supports. Programs, services, and financial help are likely to reach those in well-resourced communities or those with network links to opportunity. On the other hand, families in low-opportunity communities with limited networks will hear a day late, or not at all. Families may not have immediate transportation or other resources that connect them to opportunity. We listened and responded to communities to ensure families were visible. We acknowledged their goals for their families and young children. Now the challenge is to sustain these efforts, post-pandemic, and to continue to tailor our responses to ensure that those we intend to benefit from public resources in fact do.

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