Gogebic-Ontonagon GSC goes the extra mile for children

By Brenda Brissette-Mata

BERGLAND -- Gogebic and Ontonagon counties are at the western-most point of the Upper Peninsula. More than 500 miles from Lansing, the counties are sparsely populated, economically depressed and geographically closer to the capitals of three other states.

None of that, however, stops the Gogebic-Ontonagon Great Start Collaborative from working to improve coordination, delivery and access to early childhood services for families in the region.

Allison Liddle was named coordinator of the collaborative in November, 2008, a month after the local intermediate school district (ISD) received its Great Start grant.

“It’s about 75 miles from one county seat to the next,” she said. “The ISD is in the middle. Collaboration between agencies is a survival mechanism in our area. Budgets are limited and normally funding gets cut furthest away from Lansing. (Legislators) don’t necessarily think about how cuts are going to affect western U.P.”

There are about 1,300 children from 0-5 in the two counties. Liddle said one in three children live in poverty and the number is likely to grow when a local mill and refinery close.

And yet, she said, “because we have little population we have fewer services, less of everything.”

Including opportunities for grants. Jody Maloney, committee chair of the collaborative, said the area simply does not have the demographics that typically are served by grant programs.

“That’s a huge factor in any kind of funding and outreach and grant writing that organizations might do,” Maloney said. “We are at the end of the Earth, at least in Michigan.”

Careful planning, then, is particularly important.

The group, like all Great Start Collaboratives, began its local effort by assessing the needs of local children and parents.

After meeting with 300 community members to receive feedback on the collaborative’s “Early Childhood Community Report,” a clear picture of local families needs emerged and the collaborative’s strategic plan was finished in March.

The plan includes several target goals:

1. To see that all children have access to health care, including mental, behavioral, dental and nutritional care, with emphasis on preventive care.

2. Children arrive at school socially and emotionally healthy.

3. Increase access to existing early childhood opportunities.

4. Assure the meaningful engagement of parents of children in leadership roles of Great Start with the overall intent of increasing access to available supports for parents of young children.

5. Ensure all parents have access to community resources to meet their basic needs.

During the planning process, the collaborative learned that some area agencies had begun working together out of necessity.

The Early On program, a system designed to coordinate early intervention and other services for families with children age 0 to 3 with developmental delays, has been coordinating with Community Mental Health and other agencies that provide home visits.

Because the area gets anywhere from 250 to 300 inches of snow every year, home visits within the two counties can be difficult to coordinate.

“They would get together and say ‘Who are you visiting this month? Can you take this form and get it signed for me?’ It was a great example of how collaboration can work,” Liddle said.

“We all began to see the realization that all of these agencies and organizations can’t do it by themselves. They have to collaborate, they have to coordinate, simply because of where we are.”

Despite its far-flung location, members of the collaborative have made it a point to get involved in regional and statewide early childhood efforts.

In May, 14 people car-pooled 10 hours to the annual Star Power event on the lawn of the state capitol. At Star Power, early childhood advocates from across the state meet with their local legislators to share concerns.

“It was an awesome experience,” Liddle said. State legislators from Gogebic and Ontonagon counties - Rep. Mike Lahti and Sen. Mike Prusi - met with the group. “They couldn’t believe we were there,” Liddle said.

Four times a year, the group also makes long drives to meet with other collaboratives in the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula.

Locally, the organization relies on technology, utilizing video conferencing, e-mail and a lot of word of mouth in the community to keep people informed.

“We don’t have a lot of media machines, so getting the word out in our area is difficult,” Maloney said. “We rely on a local radio stations, two or three small newspapers and a whole lot of word of mouth to get information out.”

“The more we communicate, the less we duplicate services, and the better it is for everybody,” Liddle said. “This collaborative gives a voice to a population that hasn’t had a voice before. We want to be heard.”