Talking to young children about race

There is variety in every living thing, and our brains can sort and distinguish among these differences very early on. Children can, and do, sort by race at a very young age. Studies show that children show familiarity with their own race consistently by 6 months of age (Katz & Kofkin, 1997). By the age of 2, toddlers attribute people’s behaviors to their racial categories (Hirschfeld, 2008).

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Mental illness is not a crime

It pains me when we hear about a mass shooting and immediately blame mental illness. I confess I’ve done the same. Until now. Over the past year, I’ve walked with a family member through a mental health diagnosis. It’s been gut-wrenching and eye-opening.

To quote a friend who works in the health care industry, “When people talk about mental illness in derogatory terms like this, it just reinforces negative stereotypes and makes illness seem like some sort of moral failing. The majority of those with mental illness are not violent. The social stigma of mental illness is one of the reasons why people who are experiencing symptoms avoid treatment for their illness.

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Heath care for kids is a priority

In 2007, our community gathered to set priorities for children who live and grow up in our town. We were challenged to think of doable, local solutions to our children’s greatest needs.

Our top priority was to increase the number of school nurses, creating better health care access. Not having nurses on-site at each school means school employees often provide medical interventions for children with chronic illnesses or injuries. Our commissioners made it a priority to add school nurses until our nationally recommended ratio of one nurse for every 750 students is met.

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Bouquets of Sharpened Pencils

“I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address.” It’s a line from the movie “You’ve Got Mail,” a late ’90s movie I can’t help but watch whenever I see that it’s on.

Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks star in this cute little love story about a relationship that started in an online chatroom back in the days when internet access was still via dial-up.

I thought of bouquets of sharpened pencils because it’s almost back-to-school time, and, like many parents, I just spent the weekend buying new school supplies that are sure to keep my daughter organized and focused all year long.

I love this time of year. It’s kind of like a mid-year reboot — full of promise, the anticipation of crisp fall air (and football), and a head full of dreams about how organized I’m going to be — new pencils, new paper, new colored pens and folders! Bliss!

More than 1,000 local boys and girls will walk into their first day of kindergarten before month’s end. And several of our year-round schools are already underway. If recent statistics hold true, we’ll know two things about students in Henderson County this year:

• More than half will be considered “not ready” for school on day one of kindergarten.

• More than half in all grades will qualify for the free and reduced meals program.

If you’re like most people, you may be wondering, “What does ‘being ready’ mean?” The truth is, there is not a nice, clean checklist. Young children develop at their own speed and learn as they are exposed to new things in their environments.

Early childhood experts and K-12 educators across our nation have worked together to define what it means, but early life experiences vary widely among this age group, and children will walk into day one with a range of skills and abilities.

In general, being “ready” has less to do with children’s ability to name letters and numbers or spell their name and more to do with their ability to self-regulate, problem-solve, be imaginative and curious, take initiative, and be socially and emotionally competent. All of these skills are the business of early childhood development, and are developed through play during the first five years of life — play with their friends, with adults and by themselves.

All that development begins at birth and is shaped by the child’s environment. Early childhood environments that are rich with love and are safe and nurturing are best at preparing children for academic and social success. Environments that lack strong emotional connections with caring adults, are unsafe, unstable and high on stress are worse.

Often, the most detrimental thing impeding positive child development is poverty (and all of its impact).

Within the first 20 days of school, every kindergartner’s reading and math literacy skills will be assessed, and identifying numbers and letters becomes important. These state-mandated assessments will be repeated three times during the year and used to monitor students’ progress.

The good news is that county educators are doing a great job of taking the majority of those children from being “not ready” to being at grade level before the end of kindergarten. But imagine where a child who starts behind could have been if he or she had started “ready.”

Being ready is a two-way street. We want children to be ready for school, and we also want schools to be ready to provide positive learning environments with developmentally appropriate teaching methods that include lots of play, movement and engaging interactions. Additionally, for many children in homes with scarce resources, school can provide stability, routine and regular meals.

Here are some ways you can help impact the lives of our young children this school year:

School counselors or the Title I Department at the HCPS Central Office can connect you with the organizations that are managing local backpack programs. Backpacks full of food go home with our community’s neediest students on weekends and during breaks to ensure they have food available.

The schools’ HELP program works with families of students who are homeless. They need supplies (school supplies, toiletries, etc.).

Interfaith Assistance Ministries conducts an annual back-to-school supply drive and provides a Children’s Clothing Closet. School supplies, backpacks, shoes, coats and clothes as well as financial donations are needed.

Schools need volunteers to tutor children or read to a classroom. After-school programs like the Boys & Girls Club or Salvation Army need your support of both time and financial resources.

A number of local organizations are working together on the front end to increase the number of children who enter school ready to learn. Smart Start of Henderson County, the United Way of Henderson County and the Children and Family Resource Center work together to help address this. As nonprofits, we all need your support.

So, in the movie, he skips the bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils and actually takes her a bouquet of daisies. Be still, my heart.

Elisha Freeman is executive director of the Children & Family Resource Center (; 828-698-0674).

This article was originally seen here.

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A new chapter in life confronts me

It’s so cliché.

I want to roll my eyes when I hear it, but for some reason I can only nod in agreement. And I even too often hear it tumbling out of my own mouth into the ears of mothers of young children: “They grow up fast.”

When I wrote my first column, my firstborn was about to graduate from high school and leave home. This time, it’s my baby-baby flying the coop.

My oldest leaving only slightly prepared me for this. I’m engulfed with grief. I find myself perfectly fine one second and sobbing the next. In fact, just recently I walked into the salon for a pedicure and was placed in the chair beside a longtime member of my church family. She excitedly asked how my kids were doing, and it was like she turned on a faucet behind my eyes.

It’s a chapter of my life closing long before I feel ready for it; and at the same time, I couldn’t be happier or more proud. My daughter will spend her senior year of high school studying piano at the North Carolina School of the Arts, and I feel blessed beyond words that she has this opportunity.

Here in the South, clichés about raising kids roll easily off our tongues. Here are some I’ve found to be true:

• “Grow like a weed.” Children do grow fast, especially in the first years of life. From the moment you were born up to age 3, your brain made 700 new neural connections every second! Your environment and the interaction you had with the adults in your life helped determine whether those connections were strong or weak.

Unlike the adult brain, a child’s brain is far more impressionable (scientists call it “plastic”). This means that during this period of life our brains are more open to learning and enriching influences. It also means they are more vulnerable to developmental problems if environments are not nurturing or if they are stressful.

• “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree,” “Like father like son” or “The spitting image.” I distinctly know those moments when I can feel that I look like my father, or when I hear my mother coming out of my mouth. I’m sure you do, too. One of our core beliefs at the Children & Family Resource Center is that parents are their children’s first and most influential teachers, and thus that all parents need to have the knowledge, support, tools and community to do a good job. Our programs are centered on helping parents be the best they can be, and in many cases work to stabilize home environments in an effort to prevent child abuse and neglect.

• “It takes a village.” I know very few women who didn’t have a “village” that helped them raise their children. My village consisted of family members, a large circle of close friends who were raising their children alongside me, a supportive and loving church family, and excellent teachers from preschool through high school. This “village” is a child’s community and will form his/her memories of home.

• “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Yes! Another core belief of ours is the value of starting early in our work with children. We can have the greatest impact on a person’s life if we start at the beginning and help prevent problems from starting in the first place.

• “Children are our most valuable resource.” Longitudinal research shows the rate of return on investments in early childhood ranges between 7 and 10 percent per annum through better outcomes in education, health, sociability, economic productivity and reduced crime.

In 2012, then Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said, “Economically speaking, early childhood programs are a good investment, with inflation-adjusted annual rates of return on the funds dedicated to these programs estimated to reach 10 percent or higher. Very few alternative investments can promise that kind of return. Notably, a portion of these economic returns accrues to the children themselves and their families, but studies show that the rest of society enjoys the majority of the benefits, reflecting the many contributions that skilled and productive workers make to the economy.”

• “They are our future.” As a parent, I want my children to have all the opportunities (and more) that I had, with some of those being deep faith, a strong nation, freedom, opportunity for education and good jobs. Improving our economy, strengthening the middle class and reducing the national deficit are core values of our nation. Investing in people will make these things more possible. Furthermore, investing in the care and education of our youngest citizens will help foster valuable skills, strengthen our workforce and reduce social spending.

I came back to Henderson County to raise my children because it was such a great place for me to grow up. I am grateful for this community, and I thank each one of you who have personally touched our lives. Thank you for helping create a great community and for making “home” so special. I am grateful for those who remind me that “they’ll be back,” and tell me to look on the bright side, since “raising teenagers is like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree.” I may actually enjoy this new chapter.

Elisha Freeman is executive director of the Children & Family Resource Center (; 828-698-0674).

The article was originally found here.

Fathers make a critical impact

It’s early morning, and I’m sitting here enjoying a cup of coffee and watching “Hope Floats.”

I’ve already cried while watching the scene in the movie where Birdie visits her dad in the nursing home. While she’s making herself busy hanging pictures in his room and filling the silence with chit-chat, she turns around to see him standing with his arms out to her. She steps in, and they dance.

I’m a daddy’s girl.

I’m sure to my mother it was as much a joy as it was an irritation. A joy because she wouldn’t have wanted it any other way for me, and an irritation because I am an only child, and I’m sure it often seemed to be two against one to her (even though I think she usually won).

In the world of working with young children, it’s often the mother with whom we engage. In many cases, she’s both momma and daddy to her kids. So I was excited to tell you last month about the trend we’re seeing among teen dads enrolling in our Adolescent Parenting Program with the actual intention to learn how to be good parents to their children.

It seems to me that there has been a good cultural shift for fathers — one where this current generation of young fathers is more engaged, starting with being in the room when their babies are born. My own father would have never considered that a possibility.

Even so, while we’re seeing this positive cultural trend, our nation is also experiencing what has been labeled a “father crisis.” According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one out of three children lives in a home where the biological father is absent. That is roughly 24 million children in America.

Like a mother, a father plays an incredibly powerful role in a child’s life, and that power can be good or bad. The impact of father involvement is extraordinary and has an effect on just about every social issue facing Americans today.

When dads are present, stable and involved, children grow up with more economic stability. Children in father-absent homes are four times more likely to live in poverty.

Children with stable fathers also have fewer behavior problems and higher academic achievement. Numerous bodies of research show positive father involvement improves children’s social, behavioral and psychological outcomes while also improving cognitive abilities.

When dads are absent, children are more likely to become teen parents (seven times more likely), commit crime, go to prison, face abuse or neglect, abuse drugs and drop out of school.

Having a stable and engaged father can mitigate the negative impact when children do not have a strong maternal relationship, even when the father doesn’t live in the home. Fathers who lovingly fill this role on a daily basis should be commended and supported by this community.

It is no surprise that children whose fathers are stable and involved are better off in almost every cognitive, social and emotional measure.

In a recent planning retreat, the Children & Family Resource Center board and staff made enhancing our work with fathers among our top priorities. Our work begins simply with inviting and encouraging fathers to be involved, and by offering support specific to their needs. We’ll start with the teen dads and the fathers already enrolled in our parenting programs by offering targeted education and role modeling.

We’ve also changed the name of our scholarship program. Once called the Scholarship for Single Moms, it is now the Scholarship for Single Parents. We encourage both moms and dads to apply in order to advance their education for the purpose of improving their ability to provide for their children.

We are partnering with other agencies to meet the specific needs of dads. This fall, we are planning for the teen fathers enrolled in our Adolescent Parenting Program to participate in the Boys & Girls Club’s Passport to Manhood program.

Finally, we’re continuing to plan our coming year with all sorts of opportunities and support for the dads (and moms) who walk through our doors each week. We see them from all walks of life with a great range of needs, financial and otherwise. We’re pretty excited about this new intention.

Without a doubt, the generosity of this community enables us to improve the lives of children by building stronger families and improving the quality of their environments.

As we celebrate our fathers this month, we should remember that we should not only encourage fathers to be involved. We should expect it.

This article was originally seen here.

Good news on teen pregnancies

Years ago, I remember walking into the den while my daughter was watching the reality TV show “16 and Pregnant.” I was initially shocked. MTV was pretty much a “no-no” in my house, and she was still pretty young to be watching it, in my opinion.

Instead of freaking out, I decided to watch an episode with her and let it launch a conversation that I’ve tried to keep open since then. Trust me, the episode was wrought with all kinds of teen drama, giving us plenty of things to talk about.

At that time, I would have never believed that reality TV shows like this one would be credited, in part, for a nationwide drop in teen pregnancy. In 2014, a study estimated that teen births dropped 6 percent in the 18 months following the show’s release.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the news that teen pregnancy is on the decline in the nation. The same holds true here in Henderson County, and we at the Children & Family Resource Center couldn’t be more relieved.

Our work with teen parents has long had us aware of the need for better access to information for teenagers and for support for parents to help them gain knowledge and confidence to talk to their teens about sex.

Obviously, the reason for the decline in teen pregnancy is about much more than reality TV shows. A 2014 study by the Guttmacher Policy Review identifies two reasons that are at the opposite sides of the arguments about what to do about sex education. Those reasons:

• Fewer teens are having sex. Over the past two decades, there has been a shift in social norms that encourages teens to remain abstinent or delay sex.

• Today’s teenagers have better access to information about sex, and teens who decide to have sex have better access to contraception and are using it more often than in the past.

The newly released numbers show that birthrates among females ages 15-19 have declined 38.5 percent nationwide from 2006-2007 to 2013-2014. The largest drops have occurred among Hispanic (47.8 percent) and black (40.3 percent) teens.

North Carolina is seeing a 43.3 percent drop in birthrates for females ages 15-19, and here locally we’ve also seen numbers drop significantly with a 28.3 percent decline from 2013 to 2014.

Even though we are celebrating a decline in teen pregnancy nationwide, CDC Director Tom Frieden is correct in stating, “The reality is, too many American teens are still having babies.”

Obviously, teen parents need a lot of support. The odds are against them, and the obstacles can seem insurmountable. The statistics say that teen parents are less likely to complete high school, much less go to college. They are more likely to become pregnant again while still a teenager (22.3 percent of teen pregnancies in North Carolina last year were repeat teen pregnancies). We also know that children of teen parents are also at greater risks for health complications, academic challenges and social problems.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Over the past 15 years, we have proudly helped hundreds of teen parents successfully beat the statistics and graduate from high school, go to college, land jobs and go on to lead successful lives. Teens enrolled in the Children & Family Resource Center’s Adolescent Parenting Program receive individualized, targeted support aimed toward the goal of helping them graduate from high school and make choices to delay a second pregnancy.

We work to help them overcome life’s obstacles, develop solid parenting skills and knowledge of child development, and transition into adulthood by furthering their education and job training.

A trend we’ve noticed locally is the increasing involvement of teen dads. Through the years, I’ve often been asked, “What about the teen dads? What happens to them?” Teen fathers have always been welcome to participate in our program, but historically they have been hard to keep engaged. This year, we are about to enroll our fifth teen father in the program.

I recently read a great quote from a teen mom that appeared in a 2004 article in Parents Magazine about teen parenting. The 15-year-old mother said, “I’d like the world to know that teenage moms can be every bit as caring, loving and perfect or imperfect as any other mother. We’re parents, too, and we’re just like other parents — only a little bit younger and with a little bit more to learn.”

It is our privilege to work with parents to help them improve the lives of their children, no matter their age or circumstance. For more information about our programs, please visit our website,, or contact us at 698-0674.

Elisha Freeman is executive director of the Children & Family Resource Center.

This article originally appeared on here.

Going Upstream for Crisis Prevention

Imagine you and I are taking a walk together. We’re strolling through the woods on a sunny, warm day when we hear water and people in the distance.

We walk toward the sound and come up to a river rushing fast from recent rain. We are alarmed to see people in the water being swept away by the current. We also see a crowd of people standing on the banks, working furiously to pull them to safety.

We rush to join the crowd on the banks and begin working alongside them, pulling people out as quickly as we can. It seems the harder we work, the more people there are to be rescued.

In the intensity of the rescue work, someone steps back and says, “Has anyone bothered to go upstream and see how all of these people are getting here to begin with?”

Perhaps you’ve heard this story before. It is one of prevention, and we’ve been telling it forever at the Children & Family Resource Center. At its core, it describes who we are in this community.

Our intent is to be an agency that is working upstream to keep people out of the crisis. To do that, we focus our work on children in their earliest years of life — believing we can have the greatest impact on their future, and our future, by intervening in those earliest years.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Last month, I talked to you about foster care and the wonderful opportunity we have to love children in our community. There are 153 children in foster care in Henderson County, but only 58 foster homes.

I am incredibly thankful for the loving families who are willing to open their homes to children in great need of love and support. But wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t need them at all?

According to Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing child abuse and neglect, 127,515 child abuse and neglect reports were made in North Carolina between July 2014 and June 2015, costing North Carolinians more than $2 billion in medical and mental health services, juvenile delinquency interventions and lost worker productivity.

Here at home, there were 1,200 child abuse and neglect reports made during that period. Of those, 1,003 cases were opened for investigation and 256 were substantiated or found in need of services.

Child abuse and neglect can occur in any type of family with no regard to socioeconomic level, gender or race, and has many forms, including neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse and medical neglect.

Children who are abused suffer greatly and are more likely to experience low self-esteem, lack of self-control, higher levels of aggression and violence, academic and vocational problems, depression, alcoholism and interpersonal problems, and they are more likely to abuse their own children.

Sadly, our youngest children are at greatest risk. More than half (52.1 percent) of the nation’s child abuse and neglect cases involve children under age 7, with children under age 1 being the most likely victims.

Neglect is the most common type of child maltreatment, making up nearly two-thirds of all child abuse cases. Neglect ranges from failure to provide for the basic needs (like food) of a child to failing to properly supervise a child. Some 41 percent of deaths to children from abuse were due to neglect.

Somehow we have to work together to keep children out of these situations to begin with. Knowing our youngest children are most at risk, we can make that difference when we are able to work with new families to help them build protective factors like parental resilience and the ability to regulate emotion and respond to stress in a healthy manner.

We can also help create strong systems of support and connection for the family, help parents gain knowledge of child development and appropriate parenting strategies, and help children grow socially and emotionally competent.

The Children & Family Resource Center offers several programs and services that are considered best practices in preventing child abuse and neglect, and that help build these protective factors for children in our community. Fortunately, most parents do a good job caring for their children, but there are situations where some parents need extra help and support in caring for their children appropriately.

As adults, the responsibility lies with all of us to protect children. In fact, North Carolina law requires all adults to report possible child maltreatment if there is reasonable cause to suspect it.

If you suspect that a child is being abused or neglected, you can make a report by contacting the Henderson County Department of Social Services at 697-5572 or, after hours, at 697-4911. You do not need proof or permission to make a report, and your report can remain anonymous.

Elisha Freeman is executive director of the Children & Family Resource Center (; 828-698-0674).

Article was seen originally here.

Building Brains Takes All of Us

Last spring I sat with a group of volunteers in a classroom at Hendersonville High School getting ready to judge senior project presentations.  A young woman walked in and I mistook her for a teacher.  My interest was piqued when I realized she was one of the students I’d be judging because her poise and demeanor suggested a more mature person.  When all the students had gathered, we went around the room introducing ourselves, trying to create a friendly environment and encouraging them to relax so they could do their best.  All of the presentations were excellent.  The students were well-prepared and did a great job, reinforcing my hope in this generation.  When the young woman finished with her presentation, I sat amazed at what I learned, the scope of the project she took on, the quality of her work, her powerful delivery, and the meaningfulness of the project itself to improving the life of another person.  In response, I couldn’t help but ask her if she was going to law school.  She responded no, but said she had plans to study sonography at AB Tech.  I was convinced that no matter what she did, she would excel.

After the students left and we were debriefing with the teacher, I learned that she was an honor student, which did not surprise me.  I also learned she is a teen mom and that did surprise me.  The next day, I was happy to learn she was already enrolled in our Adolescent Parenting Program and had been receiving the support and help she needed from our team to balance being the mother of a new baby while also being a superior high school student.   She graduated from high school this past June and in July received the NC Valedictorian Award, because she had the highest GPA among high school students enrolled in this program across the state of NC.  She is the third teen mom from Henderson County to win this award.

Today, she has completed the Adolescent Parenting Program and is now enrolled in our Parents as Teachers program where she’ll continue to get much-needed support to help her transition into adulthood and achieve self-sufficiency.  She has also been awarded one of our Scholarships for Single Mothers to help her pay for school.

While I’ve written mainly about this teen mom, this story is every bit as much about her son.  The moment he was born, he had most of the brain cells he would need for his entire life.  What began to happen, almost immediately, was that his little brain began building connections.  In fact, he is building 700 new neural connections per second in the first years of life.  This process of “brain building” is directly impacted by his environment and life experiences.   Because we know the environment of a child during the first years of life can have lasting effects, we focus our work and interventions in the first years of life.  Through our program, a trained parent educator will work with this young mother to help her create a stable, nurturing and stimulating home environment and to develop her parenting skills.   We’ll be in her home at least twice a month teaching her about what is happening with her son at each stage of his development so she can become the best mother and teacher for him.  We’ll teach her how to make play meaningful and how to help him gain the skills he’ll need later in life.   We’ll be giving him developmental screenings along the way, because we know it is important to catch them early and address them quickly.

The larger community will have a role in encouraging his growth as well.  He is going to need safe places to be, caring adults to love and help him, a healthy start with good health care and nutritious foods to eat and experiences that will encourage his learning.  We all have a role to play.

Families like this one are supported by a strong network we’ve been able to build in this community.  Our local United Way has kicked off their new annual campaign and your support helps in part to fund the programs that have helped this family.  Our other community partners join with us to make sure families have what they need for success, whether its medical care, safe and affordable housing or food. We communicate regularly, under the leadership of our local Community Foundation, gathering every other month to ensure we’re meeting needs and not duplicating services.

When all is said and done, our journey with this family will end in the weeks after he enters Kindergarten.  We will work with his mother and his teacher to transition him into school successfully.  In that time, mom will have finished school and will be employed and able to support herself and her son and he’ll be ready to learn all the things Kindergarten has in store for him.  With the support of this community we’ll have made a very smart investment in both of their educations and will have helped shaped a better future.