KANSAS CITY, Kan. – “You see some sketchy characters walking around here, but this playground is like an oasis,” said Maria Garcia, an administrative specialist at the Children’s Campus of Kansas City.
With a built-in drum and xylophone, tables for water play and more, the iron-fenced playground is state of the art, as is the rest of the $15.5 million multi-tenant, not-for-profit center.
Since it opened in June, the staff at CCKC has been working to make its programs available to the poorest of Wyandotte County’s children and their parents.
The hope is that programs like Early Head Start and the others offered by CCKC will give underprivileged children in this economically depressed neighborhood a leg up.
“It’s going really well,” said Martha Staker, chief executive of CCKC and executive director of one of its major tenants, Project EAGLE, a division of the Department of Pediatrics of Kansas University Medical Center.
While the three major tenants of CCKC – Project EAGLE, the Juniper Gardens Children’s Project and The Family Conservancy – have collaborated for several years, Staker said, since the campus opened, “There are more partnerships between all the tenants. We meet monthly to talk about translating research into practice.”
Staker led the eight-year-long effort to build the CCKC. Its mission is to assure that children from birth to age 5 who are most at risk for health problems and academic failure have access to every available resource they need to succeed.
CCKC uses a system called “Connections” to sift potential clients into appropriate programs based on factors that include need, income and the availability of services.
Mary Alsept, a bilingual intake specialist for Connections, located on the second floor of the colorful, new CCKC building, said she gets referrals from a variety of community-based agencies, including the Health Department of Kansas City, Kan. Sometimes, potential clients are screened at CCKC. Other times, Alsept and others go into clients’ homes.
“We do a child-development assessment, which includes a hearing and a vision screening,” Alsept said. “Our main focus is to get the families into an ongoing parenting program that will give them information on child care, school, etc. We really try to sell you on a program like Early Head Start or Parents as Teachers or Healthy Families. It depends on what the family is interested in.”
There is already a yearlong waiting list for spots in the on-campus child-care center, Alsept said. But there are plenty of other services CCKC can offer to eligible families.
In its 12 “Educare” classrooms, for instance, Project EAGLE offers training in such fundamental parenting skills as how best to hold an infant so that he or she feels secure, said Staker.
“We say a child has five domains – cognitive, language, fine motor skills, gross motor skills and social/emotional development,” Staker said. “We provide programs to support development across all of those areas.”
And while their children are receiving day care and others services on the first floor, “We might send the parents upstairs to the Family Conservancy for actual mental-health counseling,” Staker said.
Research shows that investments in the early years of a child’s life have high rates of return, versus interventions at later ages, which have low economic returns, Stake said.
For instance, boys and girls who participate in enriched, early-childhood programs are more likely to complete school and much less likely to require welfare benefits, become teen parents or participate in criminal activities.
CCKC supports the education, health and well being of more than 1,000 children and families annually.
Monetary, in-kind and moral support for CCKC has come from several different sources. Major donors included the Barton P. and Mary D. Cohen Charitable Fund, J.E. and L.E. Mabee Foundation, Local Initiatives Support Corp., the Unified Government of Wyandotte County, Kan., Buffett Early Childhood Fund, the Hall Family Foundation, J.E. Dunn Construction, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, George Kaiser Family Foundation, and the William T. Kemper Foundation. Dickinson Financial Corp. donated the land for the center. Former KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway donated $50,000.