By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
In the range of public services designed to a build a stronger, more vibrant community, there are perhaps no programs more important than those designed to help children get a solid start in school and in life.
Using various early childhood development programs, Community Development Support Association continues to work toward building a stronger community through healthier, better-prepared children.
“Early childhood development has remained a focus for CDSA because we realize that those early years are the most important years in a child’s development,” said Dianne Juhnke, CDSA early childhood development director.
CDSA operates Child Care Finders, a resource and referral service to help families in a 15-county area find day care services. This service also provides consumer education to parents; training to child care providers; and a toy lending library for child care providers.
Juhnke said the service helps families find adequate care, which enables them to keep working and provides a more stable workforce for employers.
But, more importantly, Juhnke said Child Care Finders helps families match children with caring, well-trained providers.
Juhnke said 50 percent of children in the community live either in a single-parent household or in one in which both parents work outside the home. That makes the relationships children form with educators and child care providers that much more important, Juhnke said.
“It’s all about relationships,” Juhnke said. “Those relationships are so important, and we know young children need to have a good relationship with at least one caring adult.”
“Children need to know that their needs are going to be met, and that there’s someone there for them who cares about them, and someone they can trust and count on,” Juhnke said.
She said those positive relationships with adults help children learn how to have appropriate relationships with others when they grow up.
CDSA also operates Parents as Teachers, a program in which a CDSA worker visits with a family in their home once a month to help develop “parenting activities that encourage intellectual and language development, as well as physical and social skills.”
Juhnke said the program is based on the philosophy that “parents are the first and best teachers to young children.”
According to CDSA literature, PAT is voluntary, and is offered to families with children under age three regardless of income.
Another service offered by CDSA is Circle of Parents, a parent-led discussion and support group in which parents share experiences and advice on raising kids.
CDSA works to identify the needs of local children and families through Smart Start NW Oklahoma, a local coalition of stakeholders in early childhood development.
Juhnke said the Smart Start coalition helps CDSA and other community organizations make strategic decisions about where to allocate resources for early childhood development.
“What we want to do is identify the unmet needs of families, particularly families with young children, and find what we can do to fill those gaps,” she said.
“We really want to be a resource center for parents,” Juhnke said. “We want to make sure parents have access to the information they need on what they can do to get their kids off to a good start.”
Juhnke said all of the early childhood development programs are designed to help parents and caregivers provide nurturing and activities needed during the crucial early years of a child’s development.
Juhnke said a child’s brain reaches 85 percent of its adult weight in the first five years, making it imperative that young children be supported by “loving, nurturing families and everyday learning moments.”
“What happens in those early years makes a huge difference,” Juhnke said, “and it will have a profound impact on the future of our community when those children grow up.”
She said one of the most important things parents can do for young children is to foster lots of creative play time, both structured and unstructured.
“We want kids to have lots of opportunities for positive play experiences,” Juhnke said.
She said kids need lots of unstructured play time, in addition to structured programs and activities.
“Play time is very important, and it doesn’t all have to be structured and on a playground,” Juhnke said. “Kids need a lot of those opportunities, but they need adults who will facilitate that play, and nurture that and show an interest in what they’re doing.”
Juhnke said CDSA works with parents and caregivers to improve early childhood development, but it takes a concerted effort on the part of the entire community to ensure the next generation of workers and decision-makers grows up strong.
“Every part of our community has a role to play in helping build strong families,” Juhnke said.
In addition to nonprofits, government agencies, churches and civic groups, Juhnke said local businesses play a vital role in early childhood development through company policies on issues such as child care, maternity leave, family leave and time to attend children’s activities.
CDSA executive director Cheri Ezzell said ensuring quality early childhood development programs is a necessity not just for families and children but the community as a whole.
“If little kids don’t get what they need when they’re little, it’s going to show up later,” Ezzell said. “We need to give them what they need when they’re little so they can avoid the stumbling blocks later in life.”
Ezzell said early childhood development is the foundation on which a strong community is built, leading to better education, economic prosperity, more responsible and more healthy citizens. All of those factors, in turn, lead to a stronger community with a stronger economy and stronger parents for the future.
CDSA has been facing fiscal challenges in keeping the early childhood development programs running in recent years.
Ezzell said CDSA overall has stable funding, but the early childhood development programs in particular have seen grant funding cut by as much as half in the last two to three years.
Ezzell said community donations help keep the programs going, and CDSA will continue to make early childhood development a priority.
“We need to treat our kids like they are our most important resource,” Ezzell said. “We made that decision a long time ago, and we’re sticking with it.”
For information on how to support CDSA go to www.cdsaok.org.