by Daniel Webster
Many people know about the vitally important work Opportunity Council does to support individuals and families facing crises, such as housing instability, homelessness, addiction, domestic violence, unsafe housing conditions, and basic needs, including access to food, personal supplies and transportation assistance. We touch thousands of lives every year this way.
Many — but not all — of these acute needs have root causes that began sometimes months or even years before. Many essential services provided are, therefore, considered to be “downstream”: humane emergency intervention rather than prevention.
Not as many locals, perhaps, know that for 55 years Opportunity Council has also been keenly focused on “upstream” investments that build resilience against many social ills. The agency’s Department of Early Learning and Family Services (ELAFS) has one overriding goal: build resilience by getting every Whatcom child off to a strong start, which includes equitable access to quality early learning and developmental supports, especially for children farthest from privilege and wealth.
What do we mean by “early learning”? Doesn’t it just happen naturally?
Compelling science from higher education institutions around the nation and the globe has proven that some 90 percent of a child’s “wiring” in the brain to support future learning, self-regulation and relationship building is locked in by the 2,000th day of life, or shortly after turning five. Clearly, children continue to learn after the age of five, but, where a child has lacked the needed support and stimulation from caring adults, later learning can often be a real uphill climb. Some never catch up. The science says we have precious few days to significantly shape and maximize a future for each child born in our community.
Parallel research also shows how abuse, neglect or other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) pose huge impediments to healthy brain development in those first 2,000 days. These traumas are real for every subpopulation, even the financially well off. Such early traumas erode the forming brain’s “mapping,” its ability to organize information, connect concepts, suppress urges and strong feelings that stress relationships with other children and adults. In short, when we don’t go upstream and invest in every child, we consign ourselves to sometimes immense future costs to the individual, the family and our community.
Protecting Children From Trauma
Morally, and out of self-interest, we must commit to promoting healthy developmental experiences for every child and protecting our children from traumas to which too many are sadly exposed. There is no cookie-cutter way of doing that, but it must start with parents being the primary educators of their children. And families need support, especially in these trying times.
More and more partners from business, government, higher education, K-12 and the child welfare system are lining up to press for more early childhood supports and learning models. We welcome them to the cause! During the more than five decades Opportunity Council has proudly stood by families with young children, we have changed with the science and with the community’s needs. With both local and regional services, our Early Learning and Family Services Department offers a powerful array of supports.
“What about child care,” you might ask? Is that part of early learning? Everyone seems to be talking about it!
And rightly so.
For a number of years now, Whatcom County has been designated a “desert” for child care for working families, especially for infant and toddler care. Capacity is too low, and, for many families, the cost is too high to absorb on top of the other costs of living in our beautiful corner of America. And, of course, the current pandemic has made things even worse.
Opportunity Council has been developing and supporting the child care market for decades and we continue to develop tools to help families in need:
• Supporting the state’s hotline for parents to call when seeking child care (1-800-446-1114) by making sure the directory of vacancies is as accurate as possible. When a family’s need is complicated, our staff augments the hotline’s work by helping problem-solve the need locally.
• Vouchers for emergency child care. With the shortage of child care slots, a family who loses their child care will have to go to the end of the line, and perhaps wait months or longer for another opening. Vouchers help bridge families through short-term crises so their child(ren) can stay in their child care spots.
• Continuous Quality Improvement coaching, training and technical assistance to providers new and experienced. We want every road to the kindergarten door to be a quality experience for every child. Staff work hand-in-hand with providers of care to take them to the next level.
• Behavioral and mental health supports for providers who sometimes have enrollees with extreme needs. One child’s behavior can fundamentally shake the overall environment in the care setting. Our team works with the provider’s team to help a stressed child acclimate and others at the facility prosper.
• In cooperation with the Whatcom Early Learning Alliance (WELA), we support Play and Learn groups around the county and the region, where parents and their young children can drop in, adjust to group settings, and learn brain development and other activities useful at home or anywhere.
• And, brand new in 2020, in partnership with the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, we have launched the Northwest Center for Child Care Retention and Expansion. Dedicated professionals to help the market stabilize, keep all businesses moving forward and eventually grow our way out of the child care desert through technical assistance and grants.
Beyond the licensed care route to positive child development and early learning, the Early Learning and Family Services Department also has many other programs:
• In-home education and case management services to highly impacted families with children younger than 3 years. This “Early Head Start Program” helps parents develop their toolbox, and sticks with a family through issues like homelessness, addiction recovery, domestic violence and other challenges. For a household that enters during pregnancy, their support can extend for more than three years.
• Early intervention for children with diagnosed or suspected developmental disabilities. The Early Support for Infants and Toddlers program (ESIT) provides in-home therapies, such as occupational and speech therapy, until a child turns three and is transitioned to the K-12 system’s services, if needed. The goal is to help parents strategically work on their child’s unique developmental needs and have as many children as possible not need special education when they reach their school system.
• Families access the Early Support for Infants and Toddlers program through our county’s Single-Entry Access to Services portal. SEAS, as it is known, was a creation of parents of children with special needs of all ages and community organizations years ago out of frustration with a decentralized, confusing system. Now, SEAS is a model for our state and others. One phone call (360-715-7485) gets you navigated to what you and your child need. The community entrusted Opportunity Council to house Single-Entry Access to Services on their behalf some eight years ago, and it is still going strong.
• Head Start and Washington’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) preschool classrooms operate in every school district in Whatcom County. Up to two years of child education and support, as well as family services, enhance development and address traumas during the child/family’s enrollment. State data shows that children who leave either preschool program are far and away ahead of their peers in terms of school readiness.
• For families in the preschool programs, Project X-It is a dual-generation financial literacy and resiliency program that combines education, tangible goal-setting, trained community mentors and financial incentives to help families plan and execute their way out of financial trouble.
• And, we operate the East Whatcom Regional Resource Center, too. Not only are preschool classrooms there, but also multiple other year-round services and programs for children, families and individuals in East County, which removes the barrier of an hour’s drive to help in Bellingham.
Yes, every Whatcom County child, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, the income of their family, and the innate abilities and gifts they bring into the world, deserves an equitable start to maximize their potential. Opportunity Council is committed to this truth.
Won’t you join us in helping make sure that every child gets the love, support and education they need? Our common future depends on it.
David Webster leads the Early Learning and Family Services Department (ELAFS) for the Opportunity Council. Initially licensed to teach, he later served in senior executive positions in child welfare, local governments, social services, and a private sector consulting firm that specialized in public/private sector/foundation partnerships to affect social change.