'Whole Child' effort marks two years in Battle Creek

Fri, 04/05/2013 - 10:49am

Anthony Strong has done his share of fighting.

Growing up without a father, he had to fight sometimes to get by. When he got older, he fought the drug habit. And when the woman came around, he fought her, too. That’s the way it goes sometimes. He was in his mid-50s when he finally got something to fight for, instead of against. That’s when his first and only child was born. His name is Anthony Michael Trevon Strong, but his daddy calls him Bubba, “a pistol,” “the light.”

Strong weeps when he talks about the battle, about the violence with Bubba’s mother and getting arrested and about the bitter breakup. About the drugs and failed rehab and — here he has to pause, compose himself — about the day Children’s Protective Services came to take Bubba away. This happened a year ago.

“Yeah, that hurt. It did,” Strong said during a recent interview. “They came and got him, and I wasn’t expecting that.”

But he would fight for his son.

Strong worked with the CPS caseworker, followed her guidelines to the letter. He reached out to the group Community Fatherhood, learned some parenting skills and dealt with things in his heart. He kept his nose clean. He got a modest apartment on the west side of Battle Creek. About six weeks after moving in, Strong heard words that even a year later made the father smile like a child himself.

“He’s coming back.”

“Whoo, man, I can’t even describe it,” the father said with a happy slap on his knee. “My Bubba was home. That’s all I can say.”

But here was Strong, 58 years old, single, a toddler on his knee.  A neighborhood with few kids around.  A disability check and a small pension from the VA.

Bubba had family nearby and “hugs and kisses on both sides of him,” his daddy said. They walked sometimes to nearby parks, but Strong wanted more for his son.

That’s when Strong found out about Early Childhood Connections, an organization not much older than Bubba himself. ECC, the action arm of a local “whole child” initiative that includes local schools, churches, service providers and others in a holistic focus on families, will celebrate its second anniversary at the end of this month. The program was designed for folks like Strong.

Once a month, family coach Jessica Bengtsson visits Strong’s apartment and works with him and Bubba, showing the pair activities that can improve brain development. Most days, a cab comes by and takes the pair to a playgroup — to LaMora Park Elementary School, to Binder Park Zoo, to Voces — where Bubba can socialize with other kids and Strong can interact with other parents.

“I had to learn a lot through the seat of my pants,” Strong says of raising Bubba. “By going through (ECC programs) and meeting a lot of the mothers — I’m sorry to say, there’s not a lot of fathers that go there — I get to learn how to raise my child by asking them questions, visiting with them and listening to some of the advice they give and generally just observing how they handle their children.

“They help me a lot,” the father said. “It’s a godsend place.”

'That's what I call success'

On a Thursday morning last month, laughter echoed from a classroom at LaMora Park. A dozen kids, from too-young-to-walk to almost-ready-for-kindergarten, wobbled around the classroom offered up by the school for one of many ECC toddler playgroups that happen across the city.

There a tot and mom stacked cardboard bricks. There an ECC family coach was on the floor helping a pair of kids put together a puzzle. Here a few of the older kids used small brooms to sweep up a mess from the indoor sandbox. And there was Strong and Bubba, the father chasing his rambunctious boy with an agility that belied his age.

Mary Barkley, ECC project coordinator, watched from the corner. She pointed out a stay-at-home dad, a teacher who took time off to raise his son. Low-income, middle-income, no-income. A couple who were court-ordered into the program was expected to show.

“All walks of life are here today,” Barkley said. “But here, it doesn’t matter.”

Back in Barkley’s office there are charts and graphs representing each of those families and the hundreds of others served by ECC the past two years. Between July 2011 and December 2012, 1,100 families of newborns were referred to the group. And ECC delivered “welcome baby baskets” full of gifts to 803 of those.

Nearly 240 children received home visits from family coaches in that time. Through that process, 83 families were referred to other agencies for additional services. And 360 kids attended playgroups. ECC delivered 275 play cribs and 424 car seats and signed up 719 kids for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which delivers a new book every month until kids turn 5. Forty preschool teachers have been trained to offer a research-backed curriculum, and half of those are receiving additional coaching in the classroom.

In surveys, parents are reporting more social kids who are hitting developmental milestones, though the full impact of ECC’s work won’t be known for another three years, when its first newborns enroll in kindergarten. But Israel Flores, one of ECC’s family coaches, said the group’s success isn’t seen in numbers.

Flores tells the story of one family in particular, a child who was nearly 4 years old and couldn’t talk, who was falling behind in preschool. The coaches typically visit families once a month, but Flores started working with this family once a week.

“If you meet this kid right now, it’s amazing how he’s speaking,” Flores said. “And he was behind in school and now he’s right on target … If you see him right now,” Flores pointed to goose bumps on his arm. “That’s what I call success.”

Meeting the needs

After two years in people’s homes, Flores said he and the other family coaches have seen the challenges parents face. The coaches visit minorities who often feel segregated from parts of this community. There are refugees and immigrants who face language barriers when trying to get services for their children. And buried in the word “poverty” is a weariness with life that can make it hard for parents to muster the energy to play with their kids every night.

All that has an impact. Over the past several months, ECC family coaches have assessed the kids they work with and found roughly three in 10 boys and one in five girls are behind in developmental milestones, especially in communication, motor skills and problem-solving. Kindergarten teachers saw similar findings in their classrooms last fall.

ECC has only collected baseline data and hasn’t measured whether kids improved over time in the program, Barkley said. But the problems aren’t just in families’ struggles. When ECC got its start, officials found a wealth of resources that were poorly coordinated and difficult for some families to use.

Preschools were more heavily concentrated in more affluent neighborhoods. In a community where more than one in 10 have no car of their own and public transit is spotty at best, the families who needed preschool the most had the hardest time reaching the schools, even if they could afford it.

Hired in February 2011, Barkley said she spent her first months with the group on the phone, recruiting partners. ECC now counts roughly 70 organizations as allies, from the Nurse Family Partnership to Hispanic advocacy group Voces to PNC Bank to Willard library. The K-12 school districts are involved, spending more time focusing on kids’ home lives as a way to improve academics.

In the neighborhoods where preschools are few, ECC playgroups and home visits are heavy. And the group strives to serve minorities and work across cultural barriers. More than 60 percent of families receiving ECC services are minority, though nearly 70 percent of this city is white.

One of Barkley’s favorite stories is the call she took from officials at the local Women Infants Children (WIC) program, who told Barkley they were having difficulty reaching Battle Creek’s growing Burmese population. With two coaches on staff fluent in Burmese, ECC was able to connect WIC to that community.

Work remains.

In a 2012 evaluation, the Calhoun Great Start Collaborative, a close partner to ECC, was cited for low engagement with local businesses and government officials. Lakeview School District Superintendent Dave Peterson said rigorous expectations from the state and federal government are “driving a wedge between the academic focus and the whole child focus” and community outreach can be difficult for schools.

But Barkley said such partnerships are needed to make the initiative sustainable.

“I can’t just keep hiring family coaches,” she said. “The community needs to embrace this.”

A significant investment

The local “whole child” initiative got its start in fall 2009, when Lakeview won a bid for a state grant that would have funded early childhood and holistic work in that district, but the grants went unfunded. Cindy Ruble, who was Lakeview superintendent at the time and a trustee with the Guido A. & Elizabeth H. Binda Foundation, took her proposal to her fellow trustees at the foundation. The Binda Foundation knew it couldn’t go it alone, so it pulled in the local United Way and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

To date, the Binda Foundation has given $900,000 to ECC. The Kellogg Foundation gave $1.1 million. The United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region doesn’t specify grant recipients, but the agency will spend $3.1 million through 2014 on various education programs, including ECC.

In addition to the ECC funding, the Binda Foundation has also given nearly $128,000 to charities, service providers and other organizations focusing on the health, wealth and academics of kids and families. The Kellogg Foundation has given another $5.2 million.

That adds up to roughly $10.3 million, with more money promised. In our charity-rich community, the spending levels aren’t new. What is different, officials said, is the way the funders have worked together to serve a common purpose. A failure to do so has stifled past efforts.

“We know that changing the early childhood system goes far beyond just supporting one program, or a handful of programs,” the Binda and Kellogg foundations and the United Way said in a joint statement. “It’s about bringing multiple partners to the table. It’s about community collaboration, determined focus and long-term commitment.”

'He's my son. He's me'

You can’t see those millions of dollars in Anthony Strong’s apartment, but you can see a lot of love. Bubba has the run of the place. Toys fill a corner of the living room, overflowing from Bubba’s playpen. A TV in the living room and a TV in the kitchen (more toys in there) played kids shows simultaneously during a recent visit by a reporter. Little Bubba hurried around, showing a stuffed frog to his guests.

“Did I not tell you I have two kids?” Strong joked. “He takes that frog with him everywhere.”

The only thing with Strong’s name on it is his certificate of completion from Community Fatherhood. It hangs proudly on the living room wall.

All those numbers Barkley keeps in her files, all those millions spent and the many organizations working to help Strong and parents like him, they mean nothing, Barkley said, without buy-in from parents.  And Strong is one of ECC’s success stories. He’s bought in. Barkley said there are dozens of parents like him.

Asked why he does all he does for Bubba, Strong just shrugged.

“He’s my son,” Strong said. “He’s me.”

“And the time,” he added with a snap of his fingers, “it goes away like that.”

About the Series: “Whole Child, Whole Community” is an ongoing series examining roles the community plays in raising happy, healthy, successful children. Our goal is to hold schools, organizations, parents, youth and ourselves accountable for efforts to improve children’s lives, to look at what’s working and what’s not and to spur continuous conversations on our shared responsibilities for the futures of our young people. For questions or to offer coverage ideas, contact Justin A. Hinkley at 966-0698 or jhinkley@battlecreekenquirer.com.