COLUMBIA — Ginessa Lamsal hangs onto a toy grocery cart, doing the baby equivalent of chin-ups. She has dark hair and a penchant for making a break for it, crawling into the other rooms of First Chance for Children’s Lend & Learn Toy Library.
Above her head, Ginessa’s mother and other parents talk. They talk about feeding, how to get their babies to eat vegetables and when they’re old enough to start eating meat.
They share techniques for dealing with picky eaters, like putting fruit on the tip of a spoon loaded with veggies. Two mothers whose babies were born two weeks apart hold them up and compare weights, and they talk about when their babies learned to sit up by themselves.
It resembles a play date, and the building they’re in looks like a preschool overloaded with toys. But this is Baby U, a parent education program run by First Chance for Children.
First Chance is a nonprofit organization funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the Missouri Department of Social Services and the Children’s Trust Fund. Its mission is to bring early education to children who need it the most.
By the time kindergarten starts, some children are already significantly behind. They often come from low-income families who lack the resources to give their children the kind of enriching environments that help them learn.
When babies are born, their brains are still developing; brain cells grow another 90 percent by age 3, according to some studies, making those early years crucial.
“Children are literally building their brains,” said Philip Peters, First Chance’s executive director. “The physical framework of neurons and synapses they build before they get to kindergarten is the framework on which they will be able to learn later in their lives. You can build that framework later, but it takes a lot more effort and you’re playing catch-up.”
He said that both negative stresses and positive stimulation – something as simple as playing with blocks – affect the brain's long-term wiring.
First Chance addresses issues of early development in several ways. Under one major grant, the organization is working to convert five rural preschools into model schools.
“That’s half our budget, to raise the quality of teaching in those preschools,” said Peters. First Chance also offers programs to help people who want to become early education providers or who want to expand and improve their daycare operations.
First Chance tries to take a holistic approach to babies’ lives. As part of a new program, First Chance will give a Baby Bag to every woman who gives birth in a Columbia hospital, regardless of income.
It’s a way for the program to promote itself as a community resource for all families with children. The Baby Bags include diapers, outlet safety covers and a list of area resources for new mothers.
Then there is the Safe Cribs program, which provides properly constructed cribs to families who lack safe sleeping arrangements. The cribs themselves are meant to prevent cases of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS. But they also provide access to a family; the crib is delivered in person, and this delivery is followed up by other visits to teach parent skills and safety in the home.
¡Listo! is a First Chance program that teaches English to Spanish-speaking children about to enter kindergarten.
And, of course, there’s Baby U, an eight-week program that offers instruction on developmental milestones and issues that parents will face in the first year of their babies' lives.
In many lower-income families, “there’s a lack of parent education knowledge across the board,” said Tammy Byington, First Chance’s director of parent education. Baby U educators spend much of their time combating the belief in “wives’ tales.”
For example, biting is a “hot-button issue” in many families even though it’s a common childhood phase, Byington said. “We hear everything from, ‘If a baby bites you, you should smack their mouth,’ or ‘If a baby bites you, you should bite them back,’” she said.
“It’s a really basic lack of understanding of child development. We are able to normalize it for them and say, ‘All babies bite.’”
Many Baby U mothers are foreigners living in Columbia because their husbands are studying at MU. They arrive with very little, Byington said. “They come here in virtual poverty,” she said. “You go to their homes, and there’s a mattress and a desk.”
Whatever the reason families need help, Columbia school board member Tom Rose looks to First Chance for results. Rose is a veterinarian who serves on the First Chance board of directors. He believes early education is the best weapon in the battle against the achievement gap in Columbia schools.
“We need to help disadvantaged youth to be on an even keel,” said Rose. “Students aren’t starting out at the same level.”
First Chance is working to expand and improve the availability of early childhood centers “so kids aren’t being stuck in front of a television,” said Rose. Such involvement in a child’s early life can influence school and job success and even reduce someone’s potential for crime, he said.
But it will take more funding, additional quality programs and longer involvement in early childhood teaching and parent education to reach all of the area’s children in need, according to Kathy Thornburg, director of the Center for Family Policy and Research at MU.
“Columbia does not have as comprehensive and as well-funded a system” as programs the group has studied that proved effective in helping children raise grades and avoid delinquency, Thornburg said. “Every little bit helps, but we do not invest in our children enough in this state to get those results.”
First Chance does what it can with the money it receives; much of its budget comes from grants designated for specific purposes. First Chance’s 2008 fiscal year operating budget is $1,659,439.
Sixty percent of that money is from the Early Reading First grant; the project is working with teachers in nine classrooms that serve 900 students. Another third of the budget supports home visits for 200 families. Executive Director Peters said First Chance is able to reach another 1,000 families through the two Lend & Learn Toy Library locations and other group activities. Still, he calls the program’s coverage of low-income families “patchwork.”
“Missouri is 47th out of 50 in the country in terms of eligibility of childcare assistance for low-income working families,” said Peters. Families making slightly more than the minimum wage are ineligible for assistance through the program. Peters said some parents have to weigh taking a better-paying job against the loss of assistance.
As the parents gathered for a Baby U class eat bagels, their babies try to eat just about anything they can put in their mouths. The “class” feels less like a class than a facilitated conversation.
Byington, the director of parent education, typically answers any questions with a story about problems she faced raising her own children, or she lets other parents chime in. Byington said she’s mostly there to correct misconceptions and be the voice of the latest research but often what parents need most is to talk to each other.
While the staff at Baby U provides developmental screenings for children to determine how they’re progressing, the real focus is on helping the parents.
“All good child development comes through their parent,” said Byington. “It’s a safe place (for babies). It’s a clean, fun environment for them. But I think it’s also beneficial for them because their parents aren’t stressed when they’re there."
Byington likes to tell a story about two women who started talking while visiting the Lend & Learn Toy Library. One was the wife of a lawyer and the other was a teenager. They were both new mothers. Byington said she saw them talking on the couch, discussing their children and the things they’d learned.
“And it wasn’t the older mother lecturing the younger mother,” she said. “They were talking as equals.”