A locally-led collaborative initiative working to improve the outcomes for children in their earliest years is moving ahead after the Missoula-based Headwaters Foundation — which is providing funding — gave organizers the go-ahead to hire a coordinator earlier than planned.
In January, Lincoln County Public Health Manager Jennifer McCully said that the grant from the Headwaters Foundation in Missoula would fund a $23,000 planning phase, with around $177,000 left for implementation.
However, the Headwaters Foundation has removed the requirement for coalitions to finish the planning phase prior to hiring a coordinator, freeing up the rest of the grant funds to be used toward paying the coordinator.
The grant is part of the Zero to Five initiative, meant to be an infusion of seed money from the Headwaters foundation into creating local collaborative groups in a community-led effort to “improve the lives of children and their families,” according to the zerotofive.org website.
McCully said that Lincoln County is one of six Montana counties that have been approved for the pilot project, which is expected to provide $200,000 each year for six years for use in Lincoln County.
Under the original timeline, the implementation phase would include hiring a program coordinator, but that was expected to happen around July 1.
However, the Headwaters Foundation has now green-lighted communities receiving the grant to hire coordinators during the planning phase.
Other coalitions around the state have already hired a coordinator, and have found that it works better for them, McCully said.
Currently, the coordination effort is spearheaded by McCully and fellow Lincoln County Health Department employee Amy Fantozzi, McCully said. However, they are only able to give a couple hours a week to the work.
A full time coordinator will be able to focus on just the Zero to Five initiative, McCully said. Additionally, if the coordinator came on mid-year, the coalition would be going backwards as the new coordinator got spun-up on the work that had already been done.
So far, the Lincoln County group moving the initiative forward includes community members such as a parents and a retired social worker, as well as the Lincoln County school districts, Cabinet Peaks Medical Center, Families in Partnership, Kootenai Valley Head Start and other area agencies involved in everything from child development to foster care.
In January, McCully said that the idea is to have a very broad set of people with diverse perspectives, from law enforcement and child protective services to parents and educators. They even want to try to find people from different income brackets.
“Just to really analyze the system and see where the needs are,” she said.
However, this initial group is not as large as the eventual coalition that they intend to build, she said.
“Once we get that coordinator on, then they will be focused on getting a larger collaborative together,” McCully said.
The coalitions are allowed a broad scope when looking at improving the community.
“This is a really neat program, because they are looking system wide,” McCully told the Lincoln County Commissioners at their April 3 meeting.
That allows them to consider as diverse factors as food and transportation when looking at ways to improve outcomes in the earliest stages of childhood and even pregnancy.
In the planning phase, the collaborative group is still hashing out what the implementation will eventually look like.
The coordinator will both ensure there is continuity for the collaborative group and help to keep the group collaborating, McCully said. Too often when such an effort is completely volunteer coordinated, things fall apart over time.
Data, effort and initiative are lost.
In addition, the coordinator will work directly with a secondary benefit of the Zero to Five initiative which includes the Statewide Office that will offer support through things such as data collection, McCully said.
“[The central office will] be doing kind of the hard leg work that takes some expertise, and that will be funneled through the coordinator,” she said.
The central office and local coordinator can also help to maintain communication between the different Zero to Five collaborative groups in different counties, McCully said.
“Because if somebody’s doing something great, why reinvent the wheel?” she said.
But beyond some of the resources the grant program will assist with, what the actual implementation looks like is dependent on the needs the local group decides on, she said.
McCully listed three of the areas that the group could focus on: School readiness, resilient parenting and healthy pregnancy.
Any of those areas would address the development of children in the 0 to 5 years old range, but in different ways.
The Lincoln County Health Department is currently hiring for the coordinator position, and a full job description is available from the department. Skills listed in the description include collaboration, leadership and communication skills, as well as the ability to follow policies and processes in regard to budgets, timelines and other internal systems.