Tuesday, January 7, 2003

Helping kids early and often

This little scene could have been very different. And often is.

The tidy apartment in Owensville is cluttered comfortably with a few toys. The young mother grins and smoothes her little boy's hair, which is in pleasantly wild disarray. Adrienne Spradlin is young for motherhood, just 21, and she'd be the first to say that she was woefully unprepared.

"I was scared out of my mind," she says. "I never saw myself as having children. Never." She blinks and says more emphatically: "Never." At one point, terrified and alone, with a pile of debts, she considered suicide.

The magic handbook

Hard to imagine as you watch her now with 9-month-old Hayden. She's relaxed, confident, competent. And her son is bright as a penny, looking as though he can't wait to see what he'll find out next.

Adrienne clutches The Book, a red three-ring binder. They don't come with instructions most of us have said about our kids at one time or another. What if they did? And what if you got a coach in the bargain? Somebody who knew the game, somebody on your team.

That's what happened to Adrienne. She signed up for Every Child Succeeds (ECS), founded by Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency/Head Start and United Way & Community Chest. A terrific program, with an outstanding staff and committed volunteers, it's supported by 15 agencies that relinquish turf and sometimes funding for the greater good. A proud thing for this community.

In the three years since it began, ECS has served more than 3,300 mothers in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. These moms are what we delicately term "at risk." That means they are young or poor or single. Maybe all of the above.

And if the mothers are "at risk," their children will be at risk as well. A Rand study found that for every dollar spent on a program like this, $4 is saved in medical costs, special education services, welfare. Another study found 79 percent fewer reports of child abuse and neglect. Not to mention more kids who are ready for preschool.

"Without Pam, I wouldn't have known where to start," Adrienne says. She's talking about Pam Edwards, her ECS family support worker, who makes weekly visits.

"Adrienne has worked hard," Pam says. She has studied the pages in her binder on development and the role of a parent. She has learned about nutrition and early stimulation and safety. This costs about $2,200 per year per family, funded by taxpayers and private donations.

Most of us already know that it costs less to build a good kid than to fix a ruined adult. And - money aside - the net result is this beautiful little boy with a nimbus of unruly blond hair and a taste for learning. Maybe someday he'll replace my hip. Or cure cancer. Or eliminate the need for aerobics. Or cell phones. Or SUVs.

Every Child Succeeds only succeeds when there's a mom like Adrienne, determined that her child will succeed. But she has to live in a community willing to give her a hand.

E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.

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