ELKHART — Much work has been going on behind the scenes at Gr8t Beginnings in the past year.
“I’m in awe of all that has happened in a year,” said Carla Biro, director of Gr8t Beginnings in Elkhart County, “and just what happens when communities begin to work together. We know there are great things going on in Elkhart County, but we’re taking those pockets and bringing them together and some awesome things have been occurring because of that.”
The countywide early childhood coalition including the United Way, public schools, for-profit child care providers, faith-based child care providers, Head Start, the Community Foundation of Elkhart County, Horizon Education Alliance and individuals, has a singular, shared goal: To care for the youngest in Elkhart County.
About 50 people gathered at the United Way of Elkhart County Friday morning to hear about that work from several people representing different aspects of family support and child care.
Biro has a passion for making sure families have access to quality child care and understand the importance of parental involvement. Biro herself was one of United Way’s ALICE — Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — families. Basically, these are families that make too much money to qualify for assistance, but not enough to be self-sufficient, she explained.
“I know how the community wrapped around me during that time of finishing school and starting as an educator — how many of the community wrapped around me to make sure that was a possibility for me and my children,” Biro said.
FAMILY NEEDS ASSESSMENT
From data garnered through a study this past year, the coalition members discovered child care, housing and transportation were among the top needs for Elkhart County families.
A family engagement group from the coalition studied limitations and barriers that keep families from engaging with their children or from having someone there to engage actively with the child, Biro said. Group members got out into the community to get input. From that study, a few focus groups were defined.
Some of the highlights from their reports include:
• Approximately 17 percent of Elkhart County residents are at the poverty level.
• There is some evidence that about 50 percent of Elkhart County could be considered ALICE families. These are families that would not be able to immediately afford a new water heater, tires or a new roof, explained Keith Sarber of United Way.
• Family Christian Development Center in Nappanee, which Sarber described as a “child care desert,” asked United Way for an innovation grant that would involve a business, funding from United Way and the parent so the cost would be a 1/3-1/3-1/3 for child care.
• There are three “Success By 6” reading programs in the county — Real Men Read, Spring Into Reading and Reading Camps. The programs have infiltrated all 21 elementary schools in Goshen and Elkhart and bring together more than 600 volunteers to work with local students.
• There is new tuition assistance for poverty-level families. Elkhart County is a pilot county for the state’s On My Way Pre-K program and is leading the way in the number of applicants. According to Anna Carter, regional manager for On My Way Pre-K, enrollment began March 1. Currently there are 92 applicants, with 45 being eligible and ready to move on to enrollment. The program is for families who will have a child who will be 4 before Aug. 1.
To be eligible, the parent needs to be working or going to school.
• Meshing a pre-K model and Head Start into local schools 14 years ago was unheard of, but local school superintendents helped make it happen and began serving 510 children, Head Start Director Kathy Guajardo said. Because the economy plummeted, and as part of the economic recovery package, Head Start received a grant to offer service to infants and toddlers. In 2014, another 72 infants and toddlers were added for Elkhart County.
Guajardo received information that funding will be available to expand services and available slots for children through federal funds.
• Head Start has volunteered to participate in child care licensing and On My Way Pre-K.
• There are 101 child care providers in Elkhart County serving birth through school age, “but it is not enough,” according to Shannon Gage of the Early Childhood Alliance.
Sheila Selman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-533-2151, ext. 311.
• This coming Monday through Friday will be Week of the Child in Elkhart County.
Families are invited to stop in at a variety of locations, grab a sticker chart and enjoy food or an activity together.
Monday will be Donuts with Dad.
Tuesday will be Muffins with Moms.
Wednesday through Friday will be a time of play and hands-on projects at local libraries.
Friday night, the week will wrap up with the annual Children’s Rally at all Elkhart County Boys & Girls Clubs locations. Those who bring along their sticker chart can claim a reward.
Participating locations will be: The Electric Brew, Rise N Roll in Nappanee and Dunkin Donuts; Elkhart County Boys & Girls Clubs, Music Together, CAPS, Triple P and Walnut Hill Early Childhood Center; and Inspire Athletics, Playful Healing and Shepard Swim School.
Those who have four stamps on their chart will get a bag loaded with gifts. Those can be picked up at the Boys & Girls Clubs. Age-appropriate donations from businesses are being accepted to fill 150 to 175 bags, as are monetary donations.
• The Success By 6 Summit will take place Nov. 16 at Ivy Tech. Organizers would like to see more business people involved in the summit.
• On May 12 the Postal Carriers Food Drive will take place. Participants should pack a bag of nonperishable food and set it out by their mailboxes. The United Way needs 60 to 70 volunteers to help with that collection.
• Aug. 24 is the annual United Way cardboard boat race at the pond in front of the United Way along C.R. 17.