Friday, March 24, 2017

TOP STORY >> Pastor to lobby for Head Start

Leader staff writer

In Matthew 25:40, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

But Washington legislators and President Donald J. Trump may have missed that Bible lesson, so said Jason Ferguson, pastor of First Christian Church of Sherwood.

He and five others were asked to travel to Washington and lobby the Arkansas congressional delegation on behalf of Save the Children Head Start. Their Advocacy Summit begins Sunday and ends Tuesday.

“We will lobby our congressional delegation (including Reps. French Hill, Steve Womack, Bruce Westerman and Rick Crawford, all Republicans) on maintaining and expanding quality early- childhood education programs that help the most vulnerable,” he says.

The attitude in Washington is “disingenuous and disheartening. Education and childhood services are often used as wedge issues to push an agenda,” and he’s afraid that’s the rule of the day.

Actually, he said about the unpopularity of funding social programs under this administration and the current Congress, “We need more civility and less ego in public service. When a country is led by ego and not humanity, then it’s in trouble.”

Trump’s educational and social services slash-and-the-poor-do-without budget tactics has the pastor distressed, especially in light of the larger First Christian Church’s mission priority to work with and for children, youth and young adults.

Their end-result isn’t converts, but to heal, teach and transform lives, he said.

So instead of doing nothing, he, along with five others, are heading to Washington to remind Arkansas legislators of the continued need for the Child Care and Development Block Grants that fund early- education programs around the nation, including in Arkansas.

There are 30 different Head Start program grants in Arkansas serving about 9,000 3- and 4-year-olds. This number doesn’t include the state’s early-childhood educational programs that it serves, Ferguson said.

“The United States lags behind other industrialized nations on access to early education, ranking 28 out of 38 developed countries on early education enrollment among 4-year-olds,” he said.

His message to the Arkansas congressmen, in part, will be: “Head Start and Early Head Start are critical to providing comprehensive early care and education to our poorest children. (Currently) Head Start serves less than half of all eligible preschool-age children, while Early Head Start serves less than five percent of eligible infants and toddlers.”

He plans to ask the legislators to consider spending money on global prenatal healthcare.

Save the Children has programs in areas of the state struggling with high poverty rates and social and educational disadvantages.

The Sherwood pastor has seen up close the difference Head Start can make in the community of Patterson (Woodruff County). These children often come from single-parent, most often single moms, low-income homes and are desperate for role models and guidance.

“What blew me away was how all the boys were drawn to me like a magnet. They were so hungry to interact with me,” Ferguson said. “The teacher said, ‘You may be one of the only males they have contact with in a month.’”

“As a former Head Start volunteer I have seen first hand the difference these types of programs can make in helping make sure kids start public school with the knowledge and skills they need to flourish and survive, not fester and die,” he said.

Head Start is so important to Ward Mayor Art Brooke that he offered the program space at city hall when he found out that it was in danger of closing because Ward Central Elementary, part of the Cabot School District, could no longer house the program due to space limitations.

At last July’s city council meeting, aldermen gave their blessing to Brooke’s proposal, and the Community Action Program for Central Arkansas’ Head Start program moved in before the start of the school year.

The Ward program has about 30 students.

Ferguson said, “A lot of the time these children come from families with severely limited means and are behind socially and educationally by the time they enter kindergarten. By the time they reach the fourth grade, they’re so far behind in reading and math that it’s impossible for them to make up lost ground.”

Without a quality early education, a disadvantaged child’s chances of success are grim, Save the Children Action Network said. While in school, statistics say, 50 percent are more likely to be placed in special education classes; 40 percent are teen parents, and about 25 percent will drop out of school.

After school, 60 percent are more likely to not attend any college. Instead, these same kids, about 70 percent are more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

Ferguson said “we either pay for education on the front end or incarceration on the back end.”

According to a 2016 report by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, “The rate of return on investments in early-childhood development for many children can be 13 percent per child per year due to improved outcomes in education, health, sociability, economic productivity and reduced crime.”

In other words, early intervention can produce successful, productive, tax-paying citizens, Ferguson added.

And all of society benefits, he said.

Ferguson, who has been a journalist, worked in governmental policy and procedure, became a pastor about 15 years ago. He said, “We also will be advocating for legislation and action that benefits maternal, newborn and childhood survival. The emphasis would be on mom and child health and nutrition not just at home, but abroad.”

Around the world every year, about 1 million babies die on the day of their birth, another 2 million die within the next seven days.

About 16,000 children die each day from preventable and treatable illnesses such as pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria, and malnutrition is the cause of death in about 45 percent of kids under 5.

“The numbers are hard,” Ferguson said.

Successful adults start long before the first days of preschool, and, he said, in order to be an engaged first grader, a child needs access to healthcare.

Furthermore, he said, “I am excited that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has made its leading priority to work with and for children, youth and young adults by creating communities of healing, learning and transformation,” he said.

“This is a tangible way we can embody and share the good news of Christ who came in the name of love.”