Drawing on schools, community resources and local professionals, the Lincoln County Best Beginnings Coalition is building up the community from the roots.
Amy Fantozzi, an employee of the Lincoln County Health Department who coordinates the coalition, said that she wants Lincoln County to be the kind of place children are able to return to when they are adults, and that they want to as well.
“I want to see our community thrive, so people want to come back,” she said.
While the Best Beginnings program — which spans communities across Montana — is meant to develop approaches to improve the long term outcomes of children from birth to 8 years old, in Lincoln County, the coalition is more focused on prenatal and early childhood.
That includes things such as the resource guide for expectant mothers, Fantozzi said. They give the guides to young families before the birth.
“Because when you actually have a baby, you’re not thinking about this stuff,” Fantozzi said. New parents are often struggling just to keep up.
Fantozzi said the guide has resources she didn’t know existed locally when she was pregnant.
From churches, to licensed childcare providers, the guide is full of resources for new parents. The guide even lists all the vaccinations a child will need, and when they should get them.
Like the guide, the Best Beginnings Coalition itself is about bringing together resources.
“It’s really a platform to share information, and to connect people to one another so we all know what each other’s doing in the community,” Fantozzi said.
Craig Barringer, superintendent of Libby Public Schools, said he first attended the coalition meetings because it was a requirement for the grant that funded the Libby Preschool program.
“It started out as, I had to be there, but now I’m there because I think — for our community — we need to do what we can to make a difference,” he said.
Barringer sees firsthand the impact early childhood education has in the long term. He frequently cites studies showing the impact when advocating for Libby’s preschool program, which recently lost funding.
“The sooner we can help young families, the more likely their kids will have an opportunity to succeed,” he said. “And we’ve known that for years. The statistics will say that the better skills the kids come into school with, the better they do as they get older.”
Barringer has dealt with children who came to school unfamiliar with sitting at a table to eat.
“Family dynamics are different than they were 15-20 years ago. That’s just the reality of what we deal with,” he said.
Fantozzi said economic, technological and sociological changes have created new challenges for parents.
“We have more families with two working parents, we have a lot more single-parent families than we used to — I think that there’s a lot more barriers and struggles now, than there was 20-30 years ago,” she said.
“I don’t necessarily think that we have more education to do. I think that there’s more, getting people connected to the right services and support,” she said.
This year, the state increased funding for Fantozzi’s position from $10,000 to $60,000. She said that will enable her to spend more time on the coalition.
With efforts such as the coalition’s summer reading program, Read Up — in which children from 0 to 8 years old receive a free book each week — Fantozzi can make sure the program runs smoothly, rather than adding another task for an already overworked volunteer.
She is also creating a survey for expectant mothers, to be given out again after they give birth, in order to identify how to get them the information they need.
That is in addition to engaging directly with expectant mothers and providing lactation support.
Breastfeeding is healthier than bottle feeding, and most new mothers know it, Fantozzi said. But it’s not as natural or simple as people may assume, and a new mother may get discouraged and give up.
Jennifer McCully, county public health manager, said the funding increase is also to help the state understand what is happening and what is needed in early childhood programs in local communities.
The answer may seem obvious to the question, “How do we get families engaged in children’s lives?” McCully said. But with distractions and demands on time, it’s not.
“It’s not teaching people how to love their kids. It’s how to interact with their kids,” she said.