Ask my sisters, my mom friends, and certainly me, and we'll agree that raising kids is challenging under the best of circumstances. But having a close network of fellow parents to lean on and learn from, not to mention a supportive family, has made parenting easier for me. Meanwhile, in isolated, poverty-stricken communities across America, too many moms and dads face parenthood all alone.
Last month, I visited Tipton, a remote town only a couple of hours from my home in Los Angeles. Tipton is in the heart of one of the world's most productive agricultural regions--often called America's Salad Bowl--yet the small general store here offers almost no fresh fruits or vegetables.
The nearest hospital, pharmacy, clothing store and park are 10 miles away. For families I know in Los Angeles, driving 10 miles is nothing, but with a per capita income under $12,000 (less than half the national average), no public transportation and skyrocketing gas prices, the families I met in Tipton cannot afford to go into town more than once a month. Young moms and dads here struggle with unemployment, teenage pregnancy, pre-term births and poor health care. And many live in extreme isolation, without a neighbor in sight, let alone a network of family and friends they can rely on for support.
Five years ago I joined Save the Children's effort to help parents and kids in rural America. A long-time veteran in matters of early childhood development, Save the Children hires and trains--extensively and expertly-early childhood coordinators to work in their own communities. Through pediatricians, hospitals, and local schools, coordinators like Virginia Almeida, whom I met while in Tipton, connect with pregnant women and young parents and visit them in their homes.
I had the privilege of accompanying Virginia on a couple of home visits, during which she assesses the developmental health of the child and the well-being of the parents, teaches parents how to care for and play with their babies, and provides age-appropriate activities. As is often the case, the homes we visited started out with no toys or books and very little conversation and interaction between the parents and their children. The parents are often lonely, overwhelmed and have grown up without seeing anyone model good parenting. They tell me that talking to a newborn or reading to a toddler feels silly at first.
But by the end of each visit, Virginia managed to transformed a silent room into one filled with lively chatter. The children were babbling and their parents proudly smiling at them, paying close attention to their children's cues. What Virginia does so well is strengthen the connection between a mother and her baby and encourage parents to communicate and interact with their children. She makes the house come alive.
Above all, to moms like Dalia, whom I met on my most recent visit, Virginia offers a shoulder to lean on. Parents to two beautiful children, Dalia and Jose live 10 miles outside the heart of Tipton in a mobile home nestled between a cattle ranch and a farm, with nothing else in sight. The moment I met 19-month-old Joseph, the younger of their two kids, we clicked. I was struck by how much he reminded me of my own son. They are the same age, love trucks, books and bubbles and, I'm pretty sure, would get along famously.
For Dalia and Jose, there are no neighbors to visit, no community to be a part of, no parents to bond with and no children for Joseph to play with. With Jose working long hours on a dairy farm, Dalia is all alone six days a week, unable to travel to town, and caring for her children without additional support. However, Dalia is determined to give her kids the best childhood she and Jose can provide for them. And Virginia is there to help her.
I witnessed first-hand the joy with which Virginia plays a hundred different roles in the lives of Dalia and Joseph: mother hen, friendly neighbor, teacher and the favorite aunt who always shows up with a bag of goodies (in this case, age-appropriate toys and activities to engage Joseph's curiosity). The impact this kind of stimulation, engagement, communication, and teaching have made on the boy's future is real. Programs like Save the Children's mean the difference between scoring at or above the normal range for vocabulary acquisition at age 3--which 83 percent of the organization's program participants do--or falling 18 months behind by the time they are four, which is often the case for children who do not have access to such programs.
With every site visit, I focus less on what the families don't have and more on what Save the Children coordinators like Virginia help bring to them: love, support, attention. We can help these kids start school on an equal footing with your kids or mine by giving their mothers support and encouragement when they need it the most--during those critical first five years of their child's life, when 90 percent of brain growth occurs.
Truth is, when we lend moms a shoulder to lean on, it's the child who truly benefits in the end.
This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Save the Children, as part of the latter's drive for universal early education, which is the focus of their gala on October 1 in New York. For more information about Save the Children, click here.