There is a tribe in Africa called Masai whose traditional greeting to each other is “Casserian Engeri.” It means, “And how are the children?” They do not ask each other, “How are you?” or “How’s your day?” but rather they ask about the next generation. The Masai believe that monitoring the well-being of their children is the best way to determine the future health and prosperity of their whole society.
Here in North Carolina, 27 percent of children under the age of 5 are living in poverty. And last year, only 25 percent of students from economically disadvantaged families scored at or above reading proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. While we have made significant accomplishments in many areas when it comes to the health and well-being of our children, including the quality of childcare centers, we have more to do.
We must think not only about the children, but also about the families and communities in which they live. And, we must acknowledge that children thrive only when their environment supports their optimum growth and development. Consequently, it is incumbent upon us as a state that cares about its children to focus on the health and wellness of the people and communities that influence and support young children.
When we invest in families, communities and the people that take care of our youngest children, we are creating environments that help build a strong foundation for all future learning. As cited in a recent report issued by the Institute of Medicine, “Providing safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments for all children requires changing attitudes, behaviors, norms and policies.” That kind of shift in attitude and policy requires a huge commitment. I believe our greatest challenge may not be a shortage of funds or the absence of programs, but rather the lack of commitment to doing something about it.
As the president of Smart Start, working in the statewide network for more than 20 years, I know how critical it is to strengthen the communities in which our children live. From the home to the church to the childcare center to the pediatrician’s office, we need to ensure our children live in safe, stable and nurturing environments. By ensuring each child has the foundation to grow into a productive citizen and valuable employee, we are building a vibrant North Carolina for every child. We are creating a future where when the question is asked, “How are the children?” we can all respond, “The children are well.”