Jackson GSC partners with Consumers Energy to fund two early childhood programs

By Brenda Brissette-Mata

JACKSON -- Since partnering with the Jackson County Great Start Collaborative in 2008, Consumers Energy has donated $485,000 to support early childhood efforts in the Jackson area.

The reason why is simple.

“Consumers Energy knows that a good education is valuable," said Sheri Butters, director of the Jackson County Great Start Collaborative (JCGSC).

The partnership began when the JCGSC, seeing a need for financial support, reached out to Carolyn Bloodworth, secretary/treasurer of the Consumers Foundation and an active community member who had worked on Success at Six, a local early childhood initiative.

Bloodworth said the foundation receives numerous requests to support education, but the timing of the request from the JCGSC was perfect. As it turned out, Dave Joos, who was CEO of Consumers at the time and is now chairman of the board for CMS Energy, was very interested in early childhood efforts.

“He told me to ‘Go figure out what we are going to do,’” Bloodworth said.

The company, Bloodworth said, supports children of all ages but views early childhood as a critical time.

“Investment needs to be done early to give kids a better chance at success,” she said.

Consumers gave the collaborative $130,000 the first year to support two key programs:

1) A program that helps low-income parents with the cost of quality child care so they can continue their own education.

As part of its strategic plan, the JCGSC found that parents continuing their education often had a difficult time paying for child care.

“A single mom who decides to go to school would need child care while she worked and child care while she went to school. The added cost is a huge obstacle,” Butters explained.

Qualifying parents can receive up to $5,000 for a year. Some families only need help for a short time, but Butters said there is no stipulation a scholarship is for a limited time.

“We want that family to have support until graduation,” Butters said.

2) The Imagination Library, a program founded by entertainer Dolly Parton that provides a free, age-appropriate book to children under age 5 every month until age 5.

Butters said more than 3,500 children in Jackson County get a book every month. “And that number grows every month,” Butters said. “Our goal is to register all children at birth.”

In year two of its partnership with the JCGSC, the Consumers Foundation agreed to provide another $30,000 for Imagination Library provided the collaborative raised an equal amount.

And it did. In fact, the collaborative did better than that, raising $40,000 from other foundations, small grants and individual donors.

This year, Imagination Library will spin off to the local Jackson District Library. The library will take administer the program but the JCGSC will remain committed to sustaining funding.

The child care scholarship program has also been spun off, Butters said, which is in keeping with the collaborative’s philosophy of facilitating programs, not running them.

“We are the incubator,” Butters said. “In business development terms, we identify the need, look to see who can do it and to fill that gap if no one else can. But then we will find the most appropriate organization to take over.”

The partnership between the Jackson County Great Start Collaborative and Consumers has been so effective that the company is now getting inquiries from other GSCs, which is a good thing as Bloodworth sees it.

“We want to encourage other people, other businesses, other foundations to invest in early childhood. The investment is not big, but there are great rewards” to both society and to business.

“These are our future employees, our future customers and our future leaders,” Bloodworth said. “Michigan needs an educated work force. Without it Michigan struggles and Michigan suffers. Our future depends on a strong Michigan.”