First 5 Commissions: Raising the Bar for Early Childhood Development

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Something monumental happened for families in California in 1998. With the passing of The Children and Families First Act (Proposition 10), First 5 California, also known as the California Children and Families Commission, came into existence with the specific mission of improving the lives of children from conception to kindergarten.

Along with the state-level commission, California’s 58 counties each have an independent commission whose purpose is to uniquely address the needs of their individual communities in supporting youth ages 0-5.

One of the guiding principles of First 5 is the understanding that parents are the primary educators of their children. The commissions aim to support parents to be the best parents they can be, and to help make the journey of parenting a little easier and a lot more conscious, empowered and enjoyable.

That’s a tall order, and is where strong collaborations with other community organizations come into play. First 5 advocates for partnerships, whether through combining resources, providing fiscal support through project grants, or by providing organizations items like parenting kits and children’s books. Local First 5 commissions bring more than monetary resources to the table; they help energize community organizations and create a stronger vision of what’s possible for their community’s children.

According to First 5 California, research on brain development shows that from birth, a child’s brain forms neural connections that ultimately determine how that child will learn, think and grow for life. In the first few years of life, hundreds of new neural connections form in a child’s brain every second, and by the age of five, 90 percent of a child’s brain has developed. These findings make the importance of working with infants and young children all the more compelling.

First 5 commissions strive to address multiple goals that have been established as significant contributors to a successful life, such as: school readiness, quality preschools and child care, health and dental care, literacy, a lifestyle focus on nutrition and exercise, and care of young children with special needs.

First 5 Siskiyou supports over 20 communities in a county encompassing 6,347 square miles. The commission’s focus includes educational development for childcare providers; oral health services; parenting classes in collaboration with the Community Services Council/Siskiyou County Child Abuse Prevention Council; and support of local family and community resource centers that in turn offer a variety of programs to families.

Greta Hanelt is the mother of Austin, age 2, and Cora, age 4. She learned of the Mt. Shasta Community Resource Center when Cora was about 3 months old and a parenting support group was being offered for parents of infants.

Hanelt joined the support group, which she describes as “vibrant”: “A lot of people attended, and we shared experiences and useful information with each other. I really appreciated the information, and knowing that I wasn’t alone in what I was going through.” She later enrolled Cora in a Movement and Music program offered at the center, which Cora attended from age 6 months through 4 years.

More recently, Hanelt attended a series of parenting classes taught by instructor Kristen Stroud. She appreciates Stroud’s parenting techniques: “Kristen meets parents at the level they are at; she not only shares knowledge, she shares of herself. The classes helped me focus on a long-term plan and got me thinking about parenting styles. I think all parents attending valued being reminded about what’s key, because it’s easy to get caught up in day-to-day living and lose focus.”

Hanelt has also attended parenting workshops featuring guest speakers, sponsored by First 5 and the Community Services Council. “I’m grateful that our community is being offered these quality options, and for free,” she says. “The events include a meal and childcare, making it easy for parents to attend, and giving them a little break too.”

Lastly, Hanelt reflected on the social and networking aspects that happen while attending the sponsored programs and events. She and another mother she met at the resource center have become good friends, a relationship that developed as they began trading childcare.

First 5 Butte County Executive Director Yvonne Nenadal shares that the commission currently focuses its funding and resources on three key initiatives: Strengthening Families; Health; and Oral Health. “Within each initiative there are a variety of programs, services, and resources which we fund either solely or in partnership with other organizations,” she says. A Butte Baby Steps program provides intensive in-home case management to some of Butte County’s most fragile families whose mothers are under the age of 24. Northern Valley Catholic Social Services manages the program, which is modeled on an evidence-based program of Healthy Families America.

First 5 Butte County partners with the Butte County Department of Behavioral Health to provide MothersWell, a counseling resource for pregnant and postpartum women experiencing depression, anxiety, or other issues. By contracting with Feather River Hospital for use of its operatory and the services of an anesthesiologist, First 5 Butte County helps provide oral surgery for children under age 5. Dr. Christopher Lim and Dr. Robin Saunders of Yellowstone Family Dentistry perform the surgeries. “It is a blessing for the children in this county that the commission has continued to see oral health as a priority. Thanks to the commission for funding use of the operatory at the hospital,” says Gary Nelson, DDS, of Butte County.

The focus of First 5 Shasta is equally encompassing. To date, they have invested close to $20 million in programs, activities and services designed to help young children achieve success. One of First 5 Shasta’s unique focuses has been helping to ensure that Shasta County families experience a variety of quality events during Week of the Young Child, this year held April 5-12. The commission recently awarded $7,000 in mini-grants to 20 projects, and donated over 1,800 books that children attending the events will take home. Check North State Parent’s Going Places events calendar and look for the  icon to find Week of the Young Child events happening in upper CA. 

Like the other upper California county commissions, First 5 Tehama embraces multiple focuses, including literacy. Numerous Tehama County agencies participate in the commission’s Read Sing Play program. The commission also focuses on making sure parents receive First 5 parenting kits (available in six languages). “Babies don’t come with an instruction manual. If they did, it would look like the Parent Kit,” says Executive Director Denise Snider. “What could be a better gift than a resource filled with useful tips a parent needs?”

Tehama County resident Norma Chavez is the mother of two boys. A friend introduced her to programs sponsored by First 5 Tehama. “I was going through a very difficult time,” she explained. “I had just had our second son when my husband was deported to Mexico. I was unemployed and left with two boys, house and car payments, and no idea how long this was going to last. I felt sad and depressed. My friend kept telling me about a group that would help my child and let me forget my problems for a bit.”

Chavez doubted the value of a playgroup for a child that was just 5 months old. “It sounded ridiculous. I couldn’t see how a baby so young could have fun.” She put aside her doubts and attended anyway. “When we arrived,” she recalls, “my son was super excited. I put him on the ground and he began playing with the toys. All the moms there were so nice, and for an hour I was not thinking about my problems.”

Later Chavez enrolled her son in a school readiness program. She was amazed by what the program offered, including information about resources available within the community, “things that I had no clue about,” she says. She learned about dental resources and took her son to a mobile dental clinic.

Almost age 3 now, her son still attends the program. Chavez appreciates learning what to expect for her child developmentally, and how to help him when needed. Her son has also participated in programs of Far Northern Regional Center (a First 5 Tehama collaborator), helping him with delayed development of gross motor skills like walking and crawling.

Through the school readiness program, Chavez explains, “I was able to have more confidence in myself and to be a better parent. I will never forget all the help everyone offered me, all the positive comments that they had for me and my son – they were my angels.”

Chavez says other First 5 Tehama programs include Nurturing Parenting classes, and a Kinder Camp for children who will be entering kindergarten with no preschool experience. The camp helps children prepare for school so they feel more comfortable when they make the transition.

Chavez’s enthusiasm for First 5 led her to begin working part time with the Tehama commission doing childcare. She later applied for a position as a home advocate, and was selected. “I love my job,” she says. “I’m able to help other families and give them the best of me. I want parents to remember us and to be able to say, ‘They believed in me. I am the best teacher for my children.’” That message is one every First 5 commission and their partner organizations hope all parents grow to embrace.

[sws_blue_box box_size=”580″]Upper North State First 5 Children & Families Commissions:

Other First 5 Resources:

Lisa Shara
About Lisa Shara

Writer Lisa Shara lives in upper Northern California where she is involved in a variety of community projects.

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