By Jennifer Garner
For many people, it’s easier to comprehend and try to address poverty in the slums of India or in drought-scorched Africa than here in the United States. But one in four children in this country is growing up poor.
Growing up in West Virginia, I saw this kind of poverty around me in the forgotten mountain communities—kids growing up resigned to their own helplessness. But I always wanted to do something to help, inspired by my own mother’s story.
My mom grew up in Oklahoma during the Great Depression. Her family of 11 lived on a farm that produced almost nothing during those Dust Bowl years. Still, the few photos from her childhood show her as a girl with a neat braid, smiling. She remembers her family playing games, singing songs, reciting poetry, and having fun. Only one generation later, my mother raised her own kids with ballet and piano lessons, solidly in the middle class.
How did my mom turn poverty around? Education. She had a teacher who sparked her interest in learning, and she went on to put herself through college.
Inspired by my mom’s experience, five years ago I went looking for people who help educate kids like the ones I knew growing up in West Virginia. My search led me to Mark Shriver and a wonderful organization called Save the Children.
Here is the eye-opening lesson Save the Children taught me: Children who are born into poverty are already behind when they start kindergarten. In fact, by the time they turn 4, poor children are typically 18 months behind their middle-class counterparts.1 And most children who start behind never catch up.
- 25 percent more likely to drop out of school
- 40 percent more likely to become a teen parent
- 60 percent more likely never to attend college.
But I’ve also learned that we can help kids living in poverty start school on an equal footing with other kids by helping their mothers teach them during those crucial first five years, when 90 percent of brain growth occurs.2 This is one of the ways Save the Children helps, and this is where I get excited. I can’t tell you how many times I have been privileged to watch the lights turn on for these kids and their young mothers.
Think about it: Raising kids can be difficult in the best of circumstances. In isolated, resource-poor communities across America, moms face additional risk factors such as unemployment, teenage pregnancy, preterm births, and poor health care. All of these can negatively impact their children’s development.
Save the Children hires people from within the communities in which they’ll work and trains them to be early childhood coordinators. Through pediatricians, hospitals, and local schools, the coordinators connect with pregnant women and young mothers in their own homes.
They talk to expectant moms about their babies’ developmental progress, the importance of a well-balanced diet, and the necessity for prenatal counseling and health care. Once the baby arrives and through its first five years, the coordinator plays a hundred different roles: mother hen, friendly neighbor, fount of information, parenting trainer, all of it at once. She assesses the developmental health of the child and the well-being of the parents, teaches parents how to care for and play with their babies, and provides age-appropriate activities. She offers a shoulder to lean on and, above all, education and encouragement.
During a recent visit to one of Save the Children’s sites in my native West Virginia, I met a young mom bubbling over with enthusiasm and pride for her new baby. She told me her girlfriends believe that the best thing to do for infants is to lay them in front of the TV, so they’ll be quiet and “learn.” But thanks to Save the Children, she is the one who has learned—to sing to her baby, to read to him, and to look at him when she speaks to him. I watched as she “narrated” to her son what she was doing, talking sweetly to him as she changed his diaper, got him dressed, and fed him. This baby was obviously connected to his mama, following her everywhere with his eyes. She glowed in the encouragement and praise she received from her coordinator.
What a difference this kind of stimulation, engagement, communication, and teaching makes for a child’s future. It is within such warm, supportive relationships with parents, caregivers, and teachers that children come to know their world and how to operate within it.
The young mother told me that all of this felt “silly” at first. Many women similar to her live far from family or other community and, even more importantly, have grown up without seeing anyone model good parenting. It isn’t natural for them to play “This Little Piggy” or sing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” to a newborn. But they learn. She learned. This home visitation model can be a critical lifeline.
I went on a site visit to San Bernardino, east of Los Angeles, last year. The young parents I visited had a two-week-old infant and an 11-month-old. They looked as tired and overwhelmed as you might imagine. As is so often the case with the homes I visit, this household had no toys or books. I saw their older boy sitting in front of the TV without paying attention to it, without moving, and without making a sound. It was as if he had turned himself off.
Then the Save the Children coordinator showed up with a bag of tricks—developmentally appropriate toys and activities to engage the child’s curiosity. I was thrilled and lucky to witness the 11-month-old boy play with a ball for the very first time. In an hour, this child went from listless and eerily quiet, to curious, to animated, to babbling. Now that I have a son, I finally understand the crazy magnetism between boys and balls! The coordinator coaxed the parents into rolling the ball back and forth with their son, encouraging and teaching them to watch for his cues and gently prodding them to respond. Their son smiled and babbled at their attention, and the parents smiled back. By the end of our visit, the room had an entirely different energy. Everybody learned. Everybody was communicating. The light was turned on for this family.
With every site visit I make, I focus less on what the families don’t have and more on what Save the Children helps bring out in them: love, support, attention, words, and connection. These days, brain scientists will tell you that this connectedness actually causes the growth of the very nerve pathways that enable children to develop and understand and learn. But I know that from what I’ve seen with my own eyes: The quality of relationships within families can powerfully affect children’s motivation and confidence to learn. In fact, it teaches them that they can learn. It gets children up to speed so that when they get to kindergarten, they are ready to go with the rest of the kids.
I am so grateful to everyone who interacted with my mother as a child, giving her a leg up in this world. She certainly has proven herself worthy of their efforts. I hope Save the Children reaches every child living in poverty in our nation because all of our children deserve to have their lights shine. They’re worth it, too.
Jennifer Garner is an award-winning actress, producer, and mother. She is an advocate for early childhood education and for Save the Children, a nongovernmental organization providing education, health, and protection programs to children in need in the United States and around the world.
 Save the Children, “Jennifer Garner Calls for Early Education Investment at Senate Hearing,” Press release, November 18, 2010, available at http://www.savethechildren.org/site/apps/nlnet/content2.aspx?c=8rKLIXMGIpI4E&b=6196021&ct=8884603¬oc=1.