by Julie Cadwallader Staub
Early Learning Challenge, Race to the Top Director
How does a new mom, overwhelmed and isolated in rural Vermont with two older children and newborn, find her way to consistent support and assistance for herself and her family? How about a community café, open to all, focused on mothering support? Or an event that provides story time, free books and a healthy snack? Or, a drop in center with a play group and parenting classes that are free? Or, joining a FB page and connecting with other mothers?
Any and all of these entry points are provided to the greater Bennington community through Catamount Connections, an easily accessible drop-in community center in downtown Bennington funded by a Promise Community grant. And it works. Kayla Becker, whose previous position was the area director for United Way, leads the effort as Program Manager. Rose Morrison, who was the child care coordinator for the county and now is the center coordinator, is ably assisted by Loni Myron as program assistant. Kayla and Rose both saw the Promise Communities grant opportunity as a way to address a long-standing issue in the Bennington area: how to bring parents together in a nurturing environment and provide parenting support and information.
After two years of intensive community dreaming and planning together, Catamount Connections was launched in May of 2018. Having a community gathering spot right downtown, without transportation barriers, was identified as the #1 community need during those planning years. The Center offers play groups, story time with seniors reading to children, free art programs for children, parent-led discussions about issues that are important to young parents, such as self care, feeding your baby, pregnancy, child development services, and more. Community organizations that seek parent input can host meetings there and utilize Catamount’s “Child Watch” services. Frequently, parents come to participate in one offering, and then come back for more!
A close collaboration with the Vermont Department of Health means that WIC information and breastfeeding support is available. Early Intervention hosts a well-attended weekly playgroup at Catamount Connections and is there to talk with parents and offer guidance. Working with the newly formed RISE Vermont – Bennington chapter, Catamount Connections coordinates the fun and healthy smoothie bike and makes sure community groups are able to access it for their events. Staff from VDH and the hospital attend parent conversations to both offer their expertise, but also to listen and learn from them.
Catamount Connections values collaboration with the local elementary school, and the pre-K director, Alyson Grzyb, has recently joined their Board. Catamount Connections deliberately designed and furnished the Catamount Center to be similar to the kindergarten classroom. The Center has available school enrollment packets, offers assistance completing forms and getting parents connected to peers or school staff for further referrals. Next year, coordination on timing and scheduling with the elementary school will make it easier for kindergarten teachers to attend Kindergarten-transition information session nights.
The community has responded enthusiastically to the Catamount Center and its offerings, with robust attendance at events and many drop-in visitors. Especially popular was a Children’s Literacy Foundation (CLiF) storytelling event and book giveaway. Parents, grandparents, and child care providers came with children: 41 children and 19 adults! Community partners and parents came out for the luncheon to kick off World Breastfeeding Week, which celebrated and acknowledged the successes and challenges parents face. The month of July saw 190 children through the doors at Catamount Connections!
Even more enthusiasm greeted the funding of a “splashpad” in the downtown area, designed to bring families together in a safe, welcoming and fun space downtown, a hub for community activities. It is just a block away from where the Catamount Center is located, and the Center will utilize it to promote its offerings and services. The splashpad is on track to be completed this fall. The photo below is the engineer’s preliminary drawing of the park where the splashpad will be located.
Why has the launch of the Center been so successful, especially under such a tight timeframe? According to Rose and Kayla, the grant application accurately reflected the hopes and dreams of the many parents and community members who participated in community cafes, listening sessions and surveys during the planning phase of the grant. “It just took off once we opened,” said Kayla. “I think it has surprised everyone, how much community participation and support there’s been from the outset. It really shows how badly the community wanted and needed it.”
Another indication of widespread community support was described in a recent article in the Bennington Banner.
Promise Communities is a statewide initiative funded by the federal Early Learning Challenge—Race to the Top grant. The Promise Community initiative supports local communities working together to improve outcomes for children and families. It was modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, seeking to address all the issues that stand in the way of developing a thriving community that supports young children and families.
Each Promise Community in Vermont identifies a community coalition, which trains together in Collective Impact, Strengthening Families, Community Cafés, Appreciative Inquiry, and Results Based Accountability. These tools are used to gather community input and identify a community plan. Each community then receives a grant to support initial implementation and evaluation of their plan.
For more information about Promise Communities statewide, see http://buildingbrightfutures.org/?s=Promise+Communities or contact Jill Arkind at firstname.lastname@example.org