Children’s Coalition For Northeast Louisiana
Working Together To Help Children Thrive
article by Kay Stothart Rector
photography by Martin G. Meyers
Coalition. Collaboration. Alliance. These words are bantered about often by those involved with non-profit organizations and programs aimed at social change. Yet these concepts are not always easy to grasp or to implement. Cambridge Dictionary defines the word “coalition” as “a group formed of different organizations or people who agree to act together, usually temporarily, to achieve something.” Members of a coalition forge alliances and collaborate, working toward a common goal.
An excellent illustration of this can be found in The Children’s Coalition for Northeast Louisiana, an alliance of educators, organizations, government entities and professionals who care for and about children. Coalition members come together in pursuit of a common goal, to help children thrive. They collaborate with one another to identify and address the needs of children within the communities they serve. They facilitate change through programs designed to help and educate children and those who care for them.
Dr. Lynn Clark, who serves as Executive Director of the Children’s Coalition, describes it this way: “Our goal,” Clark says, “is for children and families in our communities to thrive. We meet that goal by connecting people who work with and care about children with the programs, organizations and people that can assist them and offer solutions to whatever issues they encounter. If a solution or program doesn’t exist, the coalition helps build one.”
As Executive Director, Clark oversees this non-profit organization serving children in twelve parishes throughout Northeast Louisiana. Before coming to the Children’s Coalition, she was a professor in the Department of Education at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, a published textbook author and editor, and former middle school teacher. Clark beams when she discusses her work with the Children’s Coalition. “If a child in our area has a need, it is almost certain that the Children’s Coalition can meet it,” she says.
Clark succeeded former Executive Director Lynda Gavioli, one of the Coalition founders. The Children’s Coalition was formed in 1998 by what Clark describes as “a group of powerful women in our community.” Along with Gavioli, the group included Janet Durden with the United Way of Northeast Louisiana and Judy Bell with The Wellspring Alliance, among others.
From the beginning, the Children’s Coalition sought to address the needs of children, as identified at a Youth Summit held in Monroe in 1998 and by area taskforces that began to meet and brainstorm as a result of that summit. The needs identified include: a caring adult in every child’s life; a safe place with structured activities in non-school hours; a healthy start for children; access to health care; an effective education with marketable skills; and an opportunity to give back to their community.
Using funds donated by the Mintz family of Monroe, the Coalition’s first Board of Directors commissioned a year-long study of the status of children in Ouachita Parish and the Northeast Louisiana region. Out of this study came the newly-formed Coalition’s plan for meeting the identified needs by creating a system of resources to support children, their families and their educators.
Almost two decades later, the Coalition successfully operates programs that benefit infants, young children, preteens and teenagers in Northeast Louisiana. The Coalition now focuses on four important areas that impact children: Early Childhood Education, Healthy Living, Youth Development and Parenting.
EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION
Early childhood education is a core purpose of the Children’s Coalition. Earnestine Dunn serves as the Coordinator for the Coalition’s Early Childhood Education programs, recognizing the vital importance of providing educational tools and a proper foundation to children from birth to age three. Because a child’s environment during these formative years impacts future development, availability of quality childcare can make a huge difference in a child’s life.
Early Head Start is a comprehensive child development program for infants and toddlers up to age three from low-income families, led by Program Director Antoinette Hoard. As part of this program, the Children’s Coalition operates three Early Head Start centers in Ouachita Parish. These centers offer quality child care for children from six weeks to age three. Limited to sixty children, with 10% of its enrollment reserved for children with disabilities, each center provides a learning environment as well as breakfast, hot lunch and a snack each day while parents are at work or attending school. Early Head Start also includes a home-based program for low income parents featuring weekly home visits and educational activities for the parent and child. Pregnant mothers can enroll in Early Head Start prior to their child’s birth and receive help with prenatal care and preparations for becoming a parent.
In addition to direct service to children at its Early Head Start centers, the Coalition conducts training classes for teachers, child care providers and parents. “A huge piece of what we have done over the years,” Clark says, “has been to educate and support the directors of child care centers.” Education is at the center of the Coalition’s mission. “Our theory of change,” says Clark, “is that we build adult capabilities to increase positive child outcomes.”
For years, the Coalition has been training child care providers, with over 2,000 teachers attending its classes annually. Through a new pilot program, the Children’s Coalition Institute now instructs teachers working in publicly funded Early Learning Centers and confers the Early Childhood Ancillary Teaching Certificate. The Children’s Coalition Institute is one of only ten programs in the state chosen to do this.
In May of 2016, in another new project, the Coalition partnered with the Children’s Museum to educate museum visitors about early brain development with “Baby Bayou,” a brain-building space for infants and toddlers.
Managed by Coordinator Mary Barrios, the Coalition’s Healthy Living services concentrate on positive mental and physical development with programs designed to address social development, mental health and literacy issues. “Literacy Plus is an exciting program that we do in conjunction with the Monroe Housing Authority,” Clark says. She credits Housing Authority Director Frank Wilcox with instigating and building this program. Wilcox saw a need to improve literacy among children within the housing authority and reached out to the Children’s Coalition for help in making sure that these children are reading on grade level by third grade. An after-school program at Berg Jones Elementary School works with over 200 children, while the Primetime Family Literacy program at the school serves adults as well as children. Other literacy programs for middle-school students go beyond basic reading and writing to offer arts and robotics.
“Al’s Pals: Kids Making Healthy Choices” is another Healthy Living program aimed at promoting healthy decision-making and enhancing social skills. Tammy Washington, Early Childhood Life Skills Coordinator, works with preschool teachers in Ouachita and Morehouse Parish to implement this evidenced-based early childhood program. The goal of Al’s Pals is to build students’ social, emotional and behavioral life skills.
Mental health issues are addressed through a number of community-based initiatives, including substance abuse awareness which addresses underage drinking and prescription drug abuse. Bullying awareness events are held each year, and information is provided for teachers and parents about fostering and supporting children’s mental health, all in conjunction with the Coalition’s Healthy Living component.
Jan Daniels, the Coalition’s Youth Development Coordinator, says that one out of every 5 teens in America suffers from emotional problems and most never get help. “Depression, anxiety, substance abuse and even suicidal tendencies are all common problems in our area,” Daniels says. The Coalition strives to insure that area youth are not only physically healthy but mentally healthy as well. “Signs of Suicide” is a program administered by the Coalition that includes screening and education in area middle schools. Students are screened for depression and suicide risk and referred for counseling, and trained to recognize the signs of suicide in their peers and how to respond.
In addition to SOS, the Youth Development arm of the Coalition works with the Louisiana Public Health Institute to address the reproductive health issues encountered by teens, and hosts the Youth Services Planning Board for the Fourth Judicial District Court to meet the needs of youth at risk for entering the justice system or foster care.
Gatha Green serves as Parenting Director, heading up the Coalition’s many programs designed to educate and support parents as they raise their children. The information and training that the Coalition distributes to area parents is nationally recognized and evidence based. Green and her team lead workshops for parents, foster parents and grandparents to equip them with the tools that they need to positively nurture and support children. A special program for pregnant and parenting teens, entitled “Jus4Me,” works within the school systems to encourage positive outcomes for teen parents.
In 2016, the Coalition added the Family Resource Center for Northeast Louisiana to its repertoire, serving as a comprehensive parenting center for families and children involved with the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services and the foster care system. Located at 300 Winnsboro Road in Monroe, the Family Resource Center offers weekly parenting classes, visit coaching and relationship assessment and intervention for parents involved with DCFS.
As a non-profit agency, the Coalition depends on adequate funding for continued success. Grants and contracts are the primary funding sources, providing over two-thirds of the financial means for the Coalition’s programs and staff. Dr. Clark’s background in education and previous grant writing experience have proven to be valuable assets to the Coalition in seeking avenues for growth. Clark credits other staff members with grant writing talents, including Andrea Dyer, Director of Grants and Budgets, for help in securing available state and federal funding as needs arise.
Additional funds are secured through School Readiness Tax Credits, which allow businesses to donate to Louisiana Child Care Resource and referral agencies, such as the Children’s Coalition, and receive a state tax credit. Any Louisiana business with a valid tax identification number is eligible to donate and receive a dollar-for-dollar refundable tax credit.
School Readiness Tax Credits, implemented in 2007 as a means to support early childhood education in Louisiana, provide about 20% of the Coalition’s overall funding. SRTCs offer a unique opportunity for businesses to control and direct how their tax dollars are spent. Funds are donated directly to the organization which uses the funds to help local children. The funds generated by SRTC donations support the Early Childhood Programs, giving infants and toddlers the start they need in life to become successful, productive citizens. Lindsey Murry, Development Director for the Children’s Coalition, is always eager to discuss the SRTC program with businesses seeking to turn their tax liability into an investment in their local community.
The smallest portion of the Coalition’s funding comes from individual and business memberships, gifts and sponsorships. While constituting a lesser percentage of the Coalition’s overall income and budget, memberships are still vitally important and their impact is significant. Clark estimates that over half of the programs in Healthy Living, Parenting and Youth Development are supported by membership dollars.
Fundraising events also provide an important source of income for the Coalition, allowing it to continue its work within the communities it serves. On February 25, 2017, the Children’s Coalition, in conjunction with DBK Dance and Performing Arts, will present “Fashion Fusion—Where Dance Meets Design,” a fun and exciting evening of entertainment at the Monroe Civic Center Arena. Fashion Fusion has become an annual event featuring fashion from local boutiques and performances by talented dancers from DBK Performing Arts, directed by Debbie Bourg. “What is exciting this year,” notes Clark, “is that we are working with Debbie to integrate the stories of our constituents into the concert. We will have individuals who are actually part of our programs, telling their stories. It will also be a chance to showcase some of our staff. So, at Fashion Fusion you will be able to get a picture of what we do, who we do it for and why we do it.”
Tickets for Fashion Fusion are available through the Children’s Coalition at the administrative offices located 1363 Louisville Avenue in Monroe, or through their website at www.childrenscoalition.org. Individuals and groups can also participate in Fashion Fusion and walk the runway to raise money to benefit the Coalition. Using a Peer2Peer site link from the Coalition’s website, groups can sign up and raise funds in support of their teams.
On May 13, 2017, the Children’s Coalition will host the 5th Annual Dragon Boat Races on Bayou DeSiard. Teams and individuals can sign up to participate in the races through the Coalition’s website. All of the proceeds from the Dragon Boat Festival will be used to support the Children’s Coalition, its programs and constituents.
The Children’s Coalition continues to grow and evolve, seeking out additional funding sources and utilizing those resources to improve the lives of area children. With Clark at the helm and a dedicated staff and Board of Directors, the Coalition has expanded its operation without losing sight of its mission. By working together with local businesses, governmental entities, non-profit agencies, churches, families and individuals, the Children’s Coalition is making a positive impact in the communities it serves every day, helping children and families thrive.