Susan Hibbard, executive director of the BUILD Initiative, recently invited me to participate in a session on Health Equity at the October annual conference of Grantmakers for Children, Youth, and Families (GCYF) in Detroit.   

Maxine Hayes, a pediatrician and former Washington State Health Officer, opened the session with a compelling overview of how research affirms the critical importance of the first years of life. She also cited Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child’s conviction that the foundation of a successful society is built in early childhood.   

I then had the opportunity to discuss Help Me Grow as an exemplary program addressing health disparities and promoting health equity. In briefly sharing the Help Me Grow story with the audience of funders and foundations, I emphasized three critical concepts that enable Help Me Grow to address disparities and promote equity. 

  1. The first is the focus on vulnerable children who so often elude early detection and typically do not meet the relatively restrictive eligibility criteria of our various state early intervention programs.  
  2. The second is the imperative of cross-sector collaboration in addressing the many adverse influences on children’s developmental outcomes, as well as maximizing the positive impact of protective factors.
  3. The third concept is the recognition of an ever-increasing number of sectors so relevant to children’s healthy development, especially those disadvantaged by poverty and a lack of access to resources: healthy homes, safe neighborhoods, transportation, workforce development, higher education, and so forth. These sectors complement and expand our notion of child health, early care and education, and family support as the key sectors in system building. 

    In this context, Help Me Grow linkage to the wide array of developmentally-enhancing, community-based programs and services that address the myriad of needs of disadvantaged families is imperative to achieve health equity.

Following my remarks, Maxine Hayes described Washington State’s success in securing a highly competitive, five year grant, Essentials for Childhood, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She emphasized such key themes as cross-sector collaboration, as well as other concepts so familiar to our Help Me Grow affiliates, including collective impact and transforming policies and practices.

The final speaker, David Fukuzawa, managing director of The Kresge Foundation’s Health Program, distinguished between the prerequisites for health and health care, and emphasized that “where one lives does indeed matter.” His comments on clinic-community integration as a key driver of behavior change and the characteristics of community-centered health systems validated and reinforced our own efforts to evolve an Office for Community Child Health at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center that houses our Help Me Grow National Center and 12 other community-oriented programs from diverse sectors. 

We have not typically framed Help Me Grow in the context of health disparities and equity. Nonetheless, key aspects of our work directly address such issues. In fact, we are currently exploring how such tools as the Protective Factors Framework of the Center for the Study of Social Policy and PARTNER, a social network analysis tool designed to measure and monitor collaboration among people/organizations, can strengthen our  work in this arena. 

Indeed, this experience emphasizes that regardless of the lens through which one views promoting vulnerable children’s optimal healthy development, the importance of cross-sector collaboration in early childhood comprehensive system building quickly emerges as a necessity. As always, we welcome your thoughts and comments.