Who are we kidding?

It's no secret that these are tough times economically. But what's often overlooked is that the people hit hardest are our youngest and most fragile. Here in Buncombe County, one child in five lives in poverty.

If 20 percent of our kids were afflicted with a chronic illness, we would quickly mobilize. Yet we're not responding effectively to the current child-poverty epidemic. We just don't seem to understand how seriously poverty is affecting our children — and the entire community.

The first five years of a child's life are a critical time, and poverty impacts how a child grows, develops and learns. New research has confirmed that these early years are when crucial synaptic connections must be made to ensure proper brain development. But this process is not automatic — it depends on the child's experiences. According to a 2007 study by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, "Early experiences determine whether a child's developing brain architecture provides a strong or weak foundation for all future learning, behavior and health."

In other words, what happens in young children's lives directly affects both their potential for success and how well they'll function as adults. Meanwhile, living in poverty reduces opportunities and access to all that this community has to offer, including high-quality child care, proper nutrition, safe neighborhoods and enrichment activities. But somehow, our high poverty rate has now become the status quo, and most of us don't recognize how poverty is undermining our children's future and depriving the community of valuable human resources.

After many years of providing services and advocating to improve the lives of children, Children First/Communities In Schools has come to recognize that poverty is fundamental and integral to all the issues we deal with: early learning and development, education, health, safety and juvenile justice. Accordingly, we are responding strategically to the epidemic of child poverty by mounting a focused, communitywide, long-term campaign to reduce the impact of poverty on children and their families. The Poverty Reduction Initiative's leadership team, which represents a broad range of community members, has been charged with inspiring and sustaining a local movement to reduce the impact of child poverty in Buncombe County through education, collaboration and public-policy advocacy.

Acknowledging that poverty is an extremely complex and tangled issue, the leadership team used a local survey as well as research on successful poverty-reduction models to determine three key focus areas that are at the root of child poverty in our community: early childhood development and education, family supports, and economic stability and asset development.

The Poverty Reduction Initiative's central strategy is simple: engage our community in understanding poverty, find solutions and take action! To tackle the first goal, we're launching a community conversation on poverty aimed at overcoming judgment, blame, racism and other negative attitudes. Over the next nine months, parents, students, educators, faith groups, business leaders, nonprofit staffers and others will gather periodically to talk, listen and learn.

Another goal is involving the community in defining and understanding how positive change in these three focus areas can have a real impact. This summer, volunteers and AmeriCorps workers will be conducting focus groups and interviews throughout the county. We'll talk directly to people living in poverty and to the service providers who work with them. Based on the information collected, we'll recommend appropriate solutions.

In the fall of 2011, we'll invite all these community stakeholders to a summit to launch the action plan. It's a long road, and seeing positive outcomes may take years, but it starts now!

You may not feel that poverty touches your everyday life, but one in five children standing next to you or sitting next to your child in school lives this reality every day. Every child in our community deserves a bright and healthy future — and we can all be part of making that happen.

To learn more about the Poverty Reduction Initiative or to get involved, contact Children First/Communities in Schools at 828-259-9717 or visit childrenfirstbc.org.

[Buncombe County residents Jennie Eblen and Bill Jamieson serve on the board of Children First/CIS and co-chair the leadership team for the group's Poverty Reduction Initiative.]

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