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

University of Montana President Seth Bodnar shakes hands with Headwaters CEO Brenda Solorzano as they announced an initiative, Zero to Five, that will help improve child development services. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

A Missoula-based foundation on Thursday announced Zero to Five, a $16.7 million multi-year initiative focused on the healthy development and resiliency of Montana’s children.

As part of the initiative, the Headwaters Foundation will invest about $5.2 million to establish a program office at the University of Montana.

The foundation focuses on child and family health and wellness, and will provide grant money to programs across Montana that focus on three key areas: resilient parenting, healthy pregnancy and school readiness.

“The science speaks very clearly that early intervention of this population has the greatest possibility of having an impact in making sure that every child grows up to be a healthy and thriving individual,” Headwaters CEO Brenda Solorzano said at a news conference at UM’s spectrUM museum.

Montana suffers from high rates of youth suicide, behavioral health challenges, large numbers of children entering the foster care system and lack of school readiness, Solorzano said. The initiative aims to help kids grow up healthy and happy.

The program office overseen by UM will be utilized as a go-to resource for collaborative efforts across the state, providing information, data, research and other aid with the help of three organizations: UM Center for Children, Families and Workforce Development; Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies; and the Childwise Institute.

Along with the College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences, UM President Seth Bodnar said that partnerships are the key to moving the initiative forward.

“The final piece that is so clear when you’re talking about health care, especially our youngest and vulnerable but most potential-filled Montanans, it takes partnerships,” Bodnar said. “No one entity can do this effectively on its own and today is a great example of collaborative partners working together with the university, with leaders across all of western Montana to impact the future of this great state.”

Zero to Five will start by including each county that Headwaters serves, or 16 community collaboratives. The foundation will fund four $200,000 implementation grants in 2018, one each in Lewis and Clark, Silver Bow, Flathead and Missoula counties, while also funding Lincoln and Mineral counties through $50,000 planning grants to prepare for implementation grants in 2019.

“We know that Montana is bigger than western Montana, so one of the things Headwaters is trying to do, is figure out ways to leverage other funders to support the creation of these local collaboratives in other parts of Montana so that every community will have the ability to have a local collaborative,” Solorzano said.

Each designated collaborative will decide where to focus its efforts and will use resources available at the UM office to address those issues.

“Now we have dollars available that will allow them to bring in a full-time staff person, to help coordinate them at the local level, develop a work plan, identify an issue, engage parents and then move forward with the implementation of the work,” Solorzano said.

Stabilizing resources to help families with parenting, ensuring healthy pregnancies and preparing young ones for school is vital to a child’s development, she said.

“There are over 100 million neuron connections that are being made by children in this age group a second,” she said. “If you can affect that, if you can affect brain science, you can improve the ability of those communities of those children to have better health in the long run.”

As part of the developing office, the UM Center for Children, Families and Workforce Development will conduct research to offer communities possibilities for how an issue can be proactively addressed. These could include parenting classes, drives for baby supplies, case management services and others.

“A lot of what we do in the Zero to Five initiative is take a look at, in research, what other states are doing, so we can see what’s happening in Oregon or Washington or Minnesota or Florida or it could be around the world,” said Ryan Tolleson Knee, director of the center. “We look around the world to see what’s being done in a way to solve problems that may be affecting kids in western Montana.”

With a movement to improve the lives of future generations, it’ll take effort, time and investment, but it’s worth it, Solorzano said.

“We can really make a difference and reduce suicides and behavioral health problems and all the issues that we see if we can create a different path forward for our children,” Solorzano said.