Guest Commentary

Joe Reardon: Our kids’ health and economic well-being go hand in hand

Kansas City is one of three pilot locations for Sesame Street in Communities, a program to help parents give kids a healthy start.
Kansas City is one of three pilot locations for Sesame Street in Communities, a program to help parents give kids a healthy start. AP

Tyler and Alexis were little when they were placed in foster care. For years, they bounced from house to house. They were scared, lonely and unsure of their future. All they had, literally, was each other.

Today they are thriving. Excelling at school, living in a loving home, admired and respected by their peers and contributing to our community as mentors for other young adults.

Too many children face difficult circumstances like Tyler and Alexis. All children have unlimited potential, but only if they receive the care, guidance and love they need to grow up healthy.

At first glance, that might seem like an unlikely observation from a Chamber of Commerce president. What does health have to do with economic development and business growth?

The answer, quite simply, is everything.

The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce represents 300,000 workers across 2,250 local companies. Promoting the health and wellness of each one of those workers and their families is an imperative if we want our region to thrive economically.

Just last week, Kansas City was announced as one of three pilot locations for Sesame Street in Communities, a major new initiative funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to support caregivers, community providers and parents in their efforts to give all kids a healthy start.

The Chamber is honored to be an official partner in this effort, and particularly excited to team up with the Sesame Street Muppets. We will leverage our extensive network to disseminate Sesame Street in Communities resources — bilingual videos, training, activities, tips and webinars — to the faith community, first responders, school districts and early learning centers. It’s all designed to help kids grow physically, academically and socially.

Our Sesame Street partnership is just the latest example of how health shapes our business mindset. The Chamber co-directs Resilient KC, through which we’re bringing health care, law enforcement, education, mental health, government, the military and other sectors together to raise awareness about the impact of trauma and promote strategies that help people cope and prosper. We’ve spearheaded a survey that will help us better understand how adverse childhood experiences affect people into adulthood and how we can better respond to and prevent it in the future. More than 3,000 people have already taken the survey; the results and subsequent action plan will help make Kansas City a more compassionate city.

Resilient KC is only one component of our broader Healthy KC work that focuses on everything from increasing access to healthy foods to helping smokers quit to encouraging businesses to adopt employee wellness plans. That work is resonating nationally. When Kansas City won the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize in 2015, our health initiatives were highlighted as part of the broader story of Kansas City’s remarkable increase in life expectancy rates.

When I was mayor/CEO of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., we transformed our approach to governing by making good health the foundation of everything we did. I’ve brought that same mindset to the Chamber. Thousands of children in our region are growing up in foster care like Tyler and Alexis did, or are receiving treatment for emotional disorders. If we want them to be the next generation of business owners, entrepreneurs and civic leaders who can take our city to new heights, we must make their health a priority from the start.

That’s why we are partnering with Sesame Street. That’s why Healthy KC is more than just a slogan for us. Because when our children are raised in supportive and loving communities, and when our workforce is strong and vibrant, the sky’s the limit for Kansas City.

Joe Reardon is the president and chief executive officer of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.