Our responsibility to young children? Guaranteed quality child care

By Kit Miller

Fresh ideas

My friend Sophia Bracy Harris tells me that April is the Month of the Young Child. This year's theme is Children's Opportunities, Our Responsibilities.

It made me wonder: What is our responsibility to young children? I asked Sophia.

Sophia is the director of the Federation of Alabama Child-care Centers (FOCAL). When she was 15 years old she and her sister were among the first students to integrate Alabama's high schools. Their family's house was firebombed. The Quakers helped them rebuild and the family stayed in the community. In school they were jeered at and ridiculed and teachers refused to call on them. Sophia graduated from that white school feeling inadequate and insecure.

"If that impacted me so at age 15, just think what happens to kids at a very young age when they're forming their identity," she told me. "That's when I developed the seed of the passion to ensure that every child has an environment that is safe, nurturing and loving and that enhances their development as a human being."

FOCAL was started in 1971 by poor and black child-care providers concerned that new laws were being passed without their input. They agreed that poor and minority children and parents are best served in child-care settings close to home. They asserted that child care is a community concern and that the black community has the resources to improve child care.

FOCAL trains local child-care workers to comply with state law. It lobbies for child-care funding. It builds coalitions with Headstart, churches and state agencies. It gives poor people skills to stand up for themselves and their kids.

For her vision and tireless work for children Sophia Bracy Harris has earned a coveted MacArthur "genius" grant and many other awards.

Nevada -- which has been hung with the unfortunate moniker "Mississippi of the West" -- has something in common with Alabama. It is hard on children.

Fifteen percent of Nevada kids live below poverty. Eleven percent have no health insurance. Low wage jobs force parents to work long hours or two shifts. And Nevada is fifth in the nation for child abuse and neglect.

Why are children always the point people for society's failures? Food and health care and quality child care should be among our highest

responsibilities to all our children.

But Sophia predicts that the future will be harder for poor children. Under the new welfare law poor mothers must increase their work hours from 30 to 40 hours per week, requiring more time away from young children and an even greater need for quality child care.

As Sophia says: "It's not just a parents concern, it's everybody's concern. Most of a child's development happens by the age of 4. Learning starts at day one, but the government doesn't pay for children's education until the age of 5. Children and parents bear most of the burden during the most critical time of intellectual development."

Sophia says the average cost of a 4-year-old's child care for a year is $3,600. Still, every dollar spent on child care saves the government $7 in services for remedial teaching, mental health, teen pregnancy and other needs.

That's why it's so important to keep funding Nevada's excellent early childhood education programs like the COW (Classroom on Wheels) Bus, Headstart and the Children's Cabinet. Children's programs must not be sacrificed to the yawning maw of budget deficits.

Mentoring, adopting a child-care program , giving scholarships, reading to kids, and organizing safe recreation are all ways people can help, says Sophia, in Nevada, as in Alabama.


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