Building Brains Builds 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.

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