A year ago, United Way of Greater Atlanta invited community residents and leaders to join a campaign to improve the lives of metro Atlanta children.
At the time, a Child Well-Being Index the agency commissioned revealed that nearly 500,000 youths across its service area lived in neighborhoods with some of the highest rates of poverty and lowest rates of economic mobility of any region in the country.
Fewer than half of third-graders were exceeding third-grade reading standards, 9.3 percent of infants were being born at low birth weights and 24.1 percent of children — over 282,000 — often didn’t know where they’d get their next meal.
Things were pretty dire, but they had been for years.
At its inaugural State of the Children breakfast in March 2017, United Way’s President and CEO Milton Little Jr. unveiled plans to improve the lives of 250,000 children by 2027.
Rather than continuing to apply a piecemeal approach to the myriad problems that children were facing, Little decided a more collaborative effort was needed. That meant harnessing the brainpower and resources of anyone and everyone willing to back this singular goal: creating a community where all the children are thriving.
Well, it looks like things might be changing.
“It’s too early to expect dramatic changes, but there are signs of improvement and that’s what we want to capitalize on,” said Ginneh Baugh, the nonprofit’s vice president of knowledge development. “We want to keep galvanizing people around the need to collaborate, leverage existing resources and invest additional resources to accelerate progress on what’s working.”
Progress and challenges will be discussed Friday at United Way’s State of the Children breakfast at the Georgia Aquarium, but Baugh likes what she’s seen so far.
Recently, a stronger emphasis has been made to understand the plight of older youths ages 16-24, who are often forgotten because they do not draw the same attention as, say, a toddler.
One evening of watching the news on WSB-TV and you’ll realize what a big mistake that is. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and idle brains are his workhouses.
According to Baugh, nearly 10 percent of youths in that age group have either dropped out of school, are unemployed or both. While the rest graduated from high school, many don’t have a clear path beyond that. And by the way, it might surprise people to learn that some of our suburban communities, like in Rockdale, South Fulton and DeKalb, struggle even more with this issue.
“They live in neighborhoods that are isolated from employment opportunities, so they have no work experience,” she said. “Even for those who are eager to work, they may not have the skill set to match the job.”
Now the Department of Labor, nonprofits like Goodwill and the Boys and Girls Club, along with companies like Accenture are working together to help teens re-engage in their education and introduce them to entry-level jobs that have a career path.
These types of efforts are the foundation of a strong talent pipeline that will support Georgia’s growing economy.
“It’s great to get a job, but if you have no plans beyond that, what then?” Baugh said.
So far, more than 495 youths from different neighborhoods have completed some type of job training and become employed. An additional 1,945 have participated in internships and expanded their career horizons. And what’s even more telling about how different the approach is, is the fact that more than 170 employers have joined the collaborative.
“All of this shows how collaborative efforts can yield bigger results than working alone, and we want to help others do a similar type of thing,” Baugh said.
Also promising are work that is being done with kids whose parents can’t afford to pay for day care, and efforts to improve children’s mental health.
While a lot has been done to improve the quality of child care in the state, children who have to rely on the informal care of a family member, friend or neighbor often show up to pre-K lacking in both social and academic skills.
Through a partnership with schools and local libraries, “Learning Spaces” have opened in neighborhoods in Forest Park and Riverdale and are expanding to other communities that need them, like Stone Mountain and Norcross.
Partnerships are also emerging to help children struggling with mental health issues.
“Children as young as 6 are showing up at school traumatized,” Baugh said. “They may not have running water at home or electricity or food, which can create uncertainty and hamper their ability to learn.”
Some have parents who are incarcerated or victims of drugs or violence.
“We talk about the incident but not the effect on the kids,” Baugh said. “Who helps them recover from those things? Who helps them deal with the emotions and build resiliency?”
Instead of relying on school counselors, she said, clinicians trained to handle more complex psychological issues are being added to school staff, and teachers are being trained to recognize trauma in their students.
“You can’t fix academic performance by only focusing on what happens during the school day,” she said.
And if you believe this is just a city of Atlanta problem, you’d be wrong. There are children living in challenging circumstances in every county and almost every neighborhood in the region.
Things are pretty bad still, but Baugh has seen enough small incremental changes to be hopeful.
Every school, social service agency and business that has said “I’m in” is working to make sure all children do well.
“That may not be their job,” Baugh said, “but they’ve made it their business.”