Investing in kids and families is key to a bright Kansas City future

03/09/2014 5:40 PM

03/09/2014 5:40 PM

Instead of sitting down to talk about her December retirement as president and CEO of the Family Conservancy, Betsy R. Vander Velde took me on a tour of the Children’s Campus.

It’s fitting that the newer building was once the site of a downtown Kansas City, Kan., bank. Instead of a place for investing funds, the campus at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers is now where the Family Conservancy and other agencies invest in the future of children and families.

That families-first focus is embedded in Vander Velde’s DNA. Her relative, Thomas Bullene, was a founding member of The Provident Association in 1880, a forerunner of the Family Conservancy.

Bullene was among area businessmen who formed the association to aid poor and jobless people. Over time, the United Way-funded agency has changed. As the Heart of American Family Services, it offered broad, comprehensive family, children’s, senior and mental health services.

The Family Conservancy and other agencies on the campus work to help children and families in Wyandotte, Johnson, Jackson, Clay and Platte counties achieve a lifetime of success. The goal is to invest now. The payback comes later.

A lot of resources go to early childhood education, with educators working to keep more than 100 kids ages 6 weeks to 5 years old engaged and learning.

In one classroom, children sat in scaled-down chairs at tables to write. In another, toddlers learned as they crawled on the carpeted floor.

There are three teachers for every eight children. Each educator is focused on three things: talk, read, play. It’s a train-the-brain campaign to get the children ready for kindergarten.

Parents serve as the primary teachers. The Family Conservancy and its partners help parents better engage children through constructive talking, ongoing reading and worthwhile playing.

Those tactics improve language skills, strengthening vocabulary. Infants and toddlers who hear 2,153 words an hour, or 11 million words a year, by age 3 acquire a vocabulary of 1,100 words. Infants and toddlers who hear only 616 words an hour, or 3 million words a year, have a 500-word vocabulary.

By kindergarten, a child with a smaller vocabulary falls behind and often stays there. That fail zone leads states to predict future prison bed needs based on kids who are unable to read well by third grade.

“School readiness is really our North Star,” Vander Velde said. “Slowly, every section of our community is getting it.”

Vander Velde said that for every high school graduate, the community saves money that it doesn’t have to spend on social services, safety net programs, law enforcement or prison. “Children are 20 percent of our population but 100 percent of our future,” she said.

Ensuring that all children have good prenatal care, and have “talk, read, play” adults in their lives has to be a community-wide effort. Safe housing, good nutrition and health care are essential.

“We know environment is very important to the learning experience,” said Heather Schrotberger, director of Project Eagle, a University of Kansas Medical Center program at the Children’s Campus. Home visits help support school readiness and engage parents and families in the academic success of the children.

School districts are partners.

The Family Conservancy will select a new leader to replace Vander Velde as the organization enters its 135th year. Vander Velde, meanwhile, plans to teach and spend more time with her family.

“It’s an exciting time for me,” she said. “It’s been such a time of reflection and gratitude.”

She leaves knowing that investing now will better the future for children and families.

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