Healthy communities make healthy childhoods

Guest Column

In generations past, we thought that children were born as “blank slates.” Within the past 35 years, we have learned that as babies listen to their world, for instance, a mother’s voice reading, their brains are firing at 86 billion neurons a second. Children are born learning, but their brains are not born; everyday experiences build them. And they are not built alone; nor are they built just by families themselves.

An area non-profit, Smart Beginnings Virginia Peninsula, knows that supporting children in early childhood (0 – 5 years) is a community issue. No one builds a healthy family alone. Solutions to families’ problems must be community-based, affecting not just a single child but the entire population. A task of this magnitude requires the whole community to come together. Health care, child care, family support, philanthropy and policymakers must work collectively to ensure that all parents, particularly those with high needs, get the appropriate resources to nurture their children’s healthy development from the very beginning. When children are healthy, in all aspects, we all benefit.

That is why an Early Childhood Collective Impact Initiative was formed in 2019 with Smart Beginnings as its backbone. Local philanthropists and corporations understood that the next generation of high-quality, local early childhood programs were critical to the whole community’s success. This community-led Initiative uses regional data to track key indicators of child well-being, such as early literacy, early learning, maternal and baby health. It has established cross-sector working groups to address gaps and align strategies so that the community moves from “talk to action.” The Initiative engages parents who share and advise the working groups from their firsthand experiences of raising young children. Collectively, the members explore root causes, identify partners and decide how to equitably meet the needs of young children, leading to long-term impact.

Future success is dependent on the health of the next generation, so when a community invests in programs that are solving problems and showing long-term improvements, we can focus on “getting it right” in the early years, making sure that generations of children bring prosperity and ingenuity to our region, resulting in a thriving economy and social mobility.

When our community invests in the first five years of a child’s life, we save money later by reducing the need for more expensive and less effective interventions later in life (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020). Investments starting at birth provide taxpayers with a return of $7.30 for every dollar invested (Heckman, J.J, 2012, The Heckman Equation). These benefits are compounded through better education, health, social and economic outcomes later in life.

What we do now for our youngest citizens will make the difference for an entire lifetime. When children are born healthy, receive quality early care and education and families have the tools they need to thrive, all children in our communities are ready for school and ready for life!

About Sister David Ann Niski 13 Articles
Sister David Ann Niski is executive director of the Bernadine Franciscan Sisters Foundation. A strong advocate and supporter of the Virginia Peninsula not-for-profit agencies, she can be reached at 757-886-6025 or by e-mail at

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