City Club Missoula panel stresses need for early childhood development programs

Ashley Ostheimer Hilliard, a UM graduate student and young mother (left), and Susan Harper-Whalen, associate dean of the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences, talk about the Zero to Five initiative and the importance of early childhood development. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

Ashley Ostheimer Hilliard became a single mom of three children in 2015, and turned to state and federal assistance to make ends meet. Each time she applied for help, she felt a pervasive lack of respect and kindness, something vulnerable families like hers need.

She wanted someone to ask her, the parent, what she needed for her children, and not be given a short-term solution involving programs that hundreds of single mothers use each day.

“We deserve respect, we deserve to have our stories heard, but we deserve to have them heard in a place that feels trusted and respected, not as a way to explain or justify why we need a program,” Ostheimer Hilliard told City Club Missoula on Monday.

Helping families with young children is one way to provide healthy development and resilience for all Montana children, an initiative that the Headwaters Foundation is pursuing with the help of local communities and the University of Montana.

The $16.7 million multi-year initiative, called Zero to Five, focuses on child and family health and wellness, and will provide grant money to programs across Montana that emphasize three key areas: resilient parenting, healthy pregnancy and school readiness.

According to Susan Harper-Whalen, associate dean of UM’s Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences, a child’s early years are the most critical.

“Learning begins at birth and occurs across all environments,” she said. “It’s those day-to-day activities in those environments that build the structure and functional development of a child’s brain, and sets the stage not only for their success today, but also in their future,” she said. “We recognize that early years are the most promising for brain and skill development, yet it is where the U.S. invests the least.”

In its first year, four communities with developed child development resources will receive funding to launch the initiative, including Missoula, Helena, Butte and Kalispell. These communities can use the money to fund systems-change work that focuses on research, policy and advocacy, and to hire a full-time employee focused on the initiative.

“We want the work to be systems change-focused, so not just identifying services to deliver to children and their families in the 0 to 5 age range, but really thinking about how do you do better collaboration and how do you better engage parents in defining what it is that they need,” Headwaters CEO Brenda Solorzano said.

Lincoln and Mineral counties are receiving planning grants to prepare for implementation grants in 2019.

“These communities can take this money and begin to do something constructive with it, given the work that they have already done,” Solorzano said.

The funding will also support the statewide program office housed at the University of Montana, which will be used as a go-to resource for collaborative efforts across the state, providing information, data and research.

Over the next six years, Solorzano hopes the 16 communities that Headwaters serves will receive funding and be a part of the larger conversation.

Many at the City Club event wanted to be a part of that conversation, suggesting that universal paperwork that can be used across multiple state and federal assistance programs be implemented, and encouraging organizations to provide families a warm hand-off to others that may assist them better.

Mark Thane, superintendent of Missoula County Public Schools, said he has been working with the collaborative, and identified the key factors that influence a child’s development, which span the complex like initial health care and childhood trauma, to more of the simple, like the amount of reading material in a home.

“We, as a district utilizing some grant funding, did a start-up this year and we have an early kindergarten for 4-year-olds, so intervening early for those students so that they can have a year of developmentally appropriate activity to prepare them for kindergarten the next year,” Thane said in an interview with the Missoula Current.

The program has 40 students, but he hopes that in the future, funding through the Legislature will allow more students to enroll.

Missoula City Council member Mirtha Becerra attended the event as well, wanting to learn more so the city can respond to early childhood issues. Being a mother of a 2-year-old, Becerra understands the struggles of finding affordable and available childcare, which is important to a child’s development.

“I think it’s imperative to ensure that parents can get back to work, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle,” she said. “The first step is to know what is the issue and what are the potential paths and then see where we can be the most effective,” Becerra said in an interview.

The Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce has created six models that address the lack of affordable and available childcare in the city, including incorporating childcare at an employee’s workplace, expanding a large-scale childcare facility, using vacant school buildings for child care and others.

It takes each person to make a difference, Ostheimer Hilliard said, and being kind is the first step and can reach farther than any amount of money.

“We have to be kind, we have to be model citizens for our children, for the families that we work with, and we have to be willing to engage and build trusting relationships,” she said.

You can contact reporter Mari Hall at mari.hall@missoulacurrent.com.

Missoula foundation announces $16.7M initiative focused on healthy, resilient children