As Twigs Bend
The writer is executive director of Partners for Children and Families in Carthage.
I grew up on a small mountain farm along the New River in Virginia. My father worked long hours as a railroad brakeman, conductor and station agent in the coalfields and farming villages of Southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia.
As the eldest of six children, with two sisters next to me in the birth order, it fell my lot to tend the animals we raised: a few chickens, a couple of hogs, and a steer or two each year, as well as a large garden.
Our farm, like most in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the mid-1950s, had an orchard of fruit trees -- apples, cherries, pears, plums and peaches. Dad didn't have the time or the expertise to tend to the trees, so they grew "on their own." Over time, their limbs twisted and their branches overlapped each other. Insects and disease wreaked havoc on them, but they continued to bear fruit, most of which was ugly and barely worth eating, except by the pigs.
As his children grew and went away to college and careers, Dad kept meaning to tend to the fruit trees. But with sometimes working two jobs, church and volunteer involvement, he just never got around to it. After getting all six kids through college with several graduate degrees among them, he retired and now found himself with time, but still no expertise.
He bought a saw and set to work on the few old trees that had survived on their own. The results of his "pruning" exercises were enough cherry wood for a nice grandfather clock, which now adorns his den, several loads of firewood, and some stumps.
You see, he waited too long and lacked the knowledge to mold and shape the trees so they could last long and be productive.
Now, thanks to my late father-in-law, I am fortunate to have some acreage in the Highfalls area of Moore County -- on the north side of Deep River. My wife and I live on land that has been in her family for more than seven generations.
During the past few years, I have accumulated about a hundred fruit trees, mostly apples. I have studied how to choose and care for them, and I've asked a lot of questions of those who have been successful. I've put in a lot of time grafting and transplanting them, pruning them, fertilizing them and protecting them from diseases and insects. I've discovered something -- or rather, the suspicions I had as a teenager have been confirmed:
Once a fruit tree gets to about four or five years of age, it's very difficult to change it. It's only in the early years that you can prepare it to be a successful bearer of fruit. For about the first four or five years, you can move it around, shape its limb structure, and be pretty rough with it; but after it begins to bear fruit, while it stills needs constant attention, you are much more limited in how you can change it.
Helping Them Bear Fruit
Well, I really want to talk about kids, not trees -- but maybe I have already.
Each year in Moore County, another 1,000 young children enter kindergarten. We hear a lot about imparting knowledge and testing for knowledge acquisition, and we should. My wife has devoted her life to the imparting of knowledge in the public school system. It is both right and necessary for us as individual parents and as a community to encourage and support the acquisition of knowledge.
But we must understand that so much of who a person will become is formulated during those very early years, far before that child goes to "school." I believe it is vital to understand that a child's habits, his attitudes, his character and his outlook on life are pretty much set by the time he or she arrives at the kindergarten door.
While he will continue to need our attention for years, attempts to make significant changes to him or her after age 5 or 6 will require a great deal of effort and come at a much greater price.
I represent an organization whose mission is to help this community see the importance of supporting and empowering families so they can ensure that their children are prepared to succeed in life.
We are fortunate that in Moore County, the majority of families are doing a wonderful job and have the resources and tools they need to be great parents. But there remain many young children in our neighborhoods that don't have all the support they need to "bear fruit," either in school or in life.
While we must continue to support the acquisition of knowledge, when we neglect the formation of character that begins even before birth, we end up with far less fruit for our labor.
In the early 1990s, about 50 local leaders assembled for a series of meetings to discuss ways to help parents prepare their children for entry into school. Out of those discussions, Partners for Children and Families was organized and began to seek the resources needed to implement some of the strategies the group had developed.
The group's first success was funding to begin the Northern Moore Family Resource Center in Robbins, which was later spun off with its own nonprofit structure and separate board of directors.
In the mid-'90s, PfCF applied for funds from the new North Carolina initiative for young children, championed by then-Gov. Jim Hunt and commonly referred to as Smart Start. It took a couple of attempts, but the group was finally approved by the state for a $100,000 grant in 1997.
Since that time, Partners for Children and Families has worked behind the scenes to administer more than $13.5 million in state funds, or about $1.5 million annually, which has been returned to Moore County to support local programs and services for young children and their families.
Our 28-member Board of Directors, with the approval of the state Smart Start organization, decides what services are funded during a request for proposal (RFP) process. Local agencies and organizations are invited to submit requests for funding of programs that will address four fundamental goals we have developed.
Looking to the Future
Here are our goals:
1. Every child has access to a high quality early-childhood program.
To address this goal, we have supported the local child-care resource and referral agency, Child Care Connections, as it assists parents in finding quality child care and provides training and support for local child-care providers.
We support a Child Care Health Consultant, a registered nurse employed by FirstHealth who trains and assists child-care providers around the county. All child-care workers who enroll in our WAGE$ program receive a supplement check twice a year as long as they continue their education and remain in the field.
2. Early childhood education is available to every child who needs it.
More than $5 million in Smart Start monies over the past 10 years have been added to other state and federal funds to subsidize the cost of child care for hundreds of low-income families and local college students.
3. Every child is safe and healthy.
We have participated with other groups and financially supported, along with the United Way, the annual Children's Fun Health Fair during March of each year. We expect to have more than 200 volunteers spending four days from March 5 to March 8 this year, providing a full range of health and developmental screenings for 500 young children between birth and 4 years of age.
Our organization will provide $100,000 this year in support of more extensive evaluations and subsequent therapies for young children diagnosed with speech/language or developmental issues. We will help FirstHealth Dental Care Center provide a full range of dental health evaluations and services for children whose families lack the resources to cover those services.
4. Moore County families effectively fulfill their roles as the primary providers, nurturers and teachers of their children, helping them reach their full potential.
PfCF has consistently funded a variety of programs geared to provide direct support to parents of young children. Using our funds, Moore County Cooperative Extension Service has provided a wide range of parenting classes over the years and continues its efforts this year with instruction and support services geared for teen parents who are students of Moore County Schools.
Every child in Moore County who receives a home visit by the Health Department or other early-intervention agencies receives a free age-appropriate book during each visit, and parents receive instruction and encouragement to read to their children on a consistent basis.
These descriptions relate only a small portion of what local partnering agencies are able to do for young children and their families because of Smart Start in Moore County.
We support a myriad of programs, all designed either to expand services to more young children than can be assisted with current resources or to provide new services not funded through other avenues.
Terry W. Reynolds can be reached at (910) 949-4045 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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