The Help Me Grow National Forum is the annual convening of Help Me Grow (HMG) affiliates from across the country to discuss how we can collectively promote the optimal healthy development of young children across the country.
When I first joined the HMG National Center team, one of the first things I learned about was the annual Forum. For the past few months leading up to the Forum, I worked with affiliates who made up the Forum Planning Committee as well as HMG Western New York to make sure that all of our efforts would truly celebrate the milestone of the 10th Annual Forum. I also worked with Joanna Bogin, former Director of HMG National, Rebecca Hernandez of HMG Orange County, Barbara Leavitt of HMG Utah, and Jane Witowski of HMG South Carolina, to coordinate their remarks reflecting on attending all ten HMG Forums.
Their remarks on paper were inviting, but I still couldn’t quite put it all together – what was so special about the Forum?
The Help Me Grow National Forum is where the affiliate network comes to life. For three days, I found myself immersed in what makes this network powerful: getting an in-depth look of the host affiliate, Help Me Grow Western New York; breakout sessions sharing lessons learned; and networking in every minute of the conference, whether it be during a speed-dating session or during breakfast. For three days, I found myself learning from and with my colleagues who strive to help all young children reach their full potential.
This learning came in the form of hearing the powerful words of Dr. Myron Glick, Founder of Jericho Road, a community-based health center in Buffalo, New York, who reminded us that there is still so much work left to be done in a time where both poverty and racism continue to drastically affect the lives of young children.
This learning came in the form of attending four breakout sessions – each unique in their efforts. On Tuesday, this was learning about authentic father engagement from the mouths of three dads of Wayne County, Michigan, as well as the Return on Investment analysis of Help Me Grow being led by the Center for Health Care Strategies. On Wednesday, this was learning about the role of Help Me Grow in the First 1,000 Days on Medicaid Campaign in New York, to the community-led work in Pierce County, WA of using Help Me Grow as a mechanism for preventing child abuse and neglect. From my perspective at the National Center, these breakout sessions fueled both my knowledge and my desire to share this vital information across the entire network in order to move our work forward.
The role of networking during the HMG Forum is what makes the affiliate network strong. For me, what sets the HMG Forum apart from other conferences is that these connections amplify our collective voice as a network.
This was the first time that I was able to put faces to dozens of names that I’ve been virtually communicating with in my work prior to the Forum. Among so many others, I had the opportunity to meet up with Omotunde Sowole-West, Program Manager for Help Me Grow D.C., who was also attending her first HMG Forum.
We met for coffee on Wednesday morning, and I was curious to hear if her take on the Forum was similar to mine. Hearing her perspective as an affiliate attending her first Forum fully validated my experience, but also further opened my eyes to the incredible work being done by affiliates. In D.C., Omotunde shared about her team’s quest to implement an integrated in-house database, similar to the Utah Family Database. She explained how much the Help Me Grow Utah state lead, Barbara Leavitt, helped her in that endeavor prior to the Forum. Meeting Barbara at the Forum felt like, “meeting up with an old friend,” and that Barbara’s mentorship is what, “this is all about.”
Upon her reflection, Omotunde said that, “the level of expertise and knowledge of the various presenters was extremely helpful. I appreciated everyone’s positive attitude and overall willingness to explain both their successes and challenges.
“It was also great to bond with my team, as we shared ways we would pass along the information and knowledge we gained to our colleagues back in D.C. The forum was invigorating, both intellectually and emotionally, and it provided a wealth of practical strategies that I intend to incorporate within HMG D.C.”
From the National Center perspective to the affiliate perspective, it rings true to me that the Help Me Grow National Forum stands out as a meeting for in-person learning that propels our work forward. At the same time that we were celebrating many milestones of the evolution of the network since the first Forum, it was clear to me that this Forum also served as a platform for fueling progress that will advance our work that enables all young children to thrive.
Stephanie Luczak is a Program Coordinator at the Help Me Grow National Center.