Mason-Lake-Ocean Great Start Parent Coalition reaches out to community, legislators on behalf of children

By Brenda Brissette-Mata

LUDINGTON – For the members of the Mason-Lake-Oceana Great Start Parent Coalition (MLO GSPC) spreading the word about the importance of early childhood success is of the utmost importance.

“Lake County is often referred to as the poorest county in the state of Michigan,” said Colleen Unsal, a former early childhood educator, now parent liaison for the MLO GSPC. “But, we know we can change the future for our children. The facts, the research is all there, and the goal of Great Start is an important message that we want to get to every member of our community.”

To that end, in March the MLO GSPC held the first candidate forum in the state and at the end of June the organization sponsored a “Rock the Vote” concert.

“We wanted to build trust in the community and become very involved in educating the community about the legislators in our area,” she said.

Many parents told Unsal they were afraid to attend because they were uncomfortable talking to legislators or felt that they didn’t have a compelling enough story to tell.

“I told them it was important for them to come and listen, let the candidates see the people here and see that we turned out because early childhood is important,” she said.

The setting, she figured, would be key. She wanted something that wouldn’t intimidate community members. To make the gathering seem more intimate than institutional, the parent coalition selected the Cartier Mansion for the setting. Now a beautiful bed and breakfast in Ludington, the home was built more than 100 years ago by lumber baron Warren Cartier.

Twelve candidates were part of the forum. Each was given three minutes to speak and the rest of the time was spent with the community interacting with legislators, one on one.

At the end of the event Unsal attempted to pay the bill for rental of the mansion but the owner, Sueann Schnitker, instead chose to donate the cost. “She said we were doing such amazing work, the she just couldn’t charge us,” Unsal said.

Most important to the GSPSC were the connections that were made.

“I saw many who said they were worried show up and end up talking to the candidates,” Unsal said.

In addition to community members, local dignitaries, agency heads and representatives from the college, members from the Early Childhood Investment Corporation (ECIC) also were in attendance. Unsal said ECIC recognized the group for its efforts at the annual statewide conference in April.

“It really made us feel like we were a success,” she said.

After the forum, the Great Start Parent Coalition was anxious to continue the push to enhance community awareness about Great Start.

Their next big event was the Scottville Music Festival. The festival offered the organization an opportunity to become the main sponsor for the family stage at the festival. The headline act was the Michigan band, “The Verve Pipe.” The bandstand featured a banner that read: “Every rising star deserves a Great Start.”

The GSPC offered voter registration and invited every candidate running for state or local office in the three-county area to take part and introduce themselves to the community.

“We identified that each of the three counties needed a baby pantry,” Unsal said. To address that need, the GSPC held a bake sale and face painting booth at the music festival with proceeds going to the creation of the baby pantries. Donations also were accepted.

“I had no idea what we would make,” Unsal said. “It wasn’t as much as we hoped for, but we had 45 children get their faces painted, so I had the opportunity to talk with 45 sets of parents.”

The group distributed 150 brochures and Unsal also took the opportunity to address the crowd about the importance of early childhood.

The outreach doesn’t stop there, however.

Next in the works, Unsal said, is a family resource center. The GSPC/GSC, in partnership with Pathways, is hoping to create a pilot program for the state.

“People are just starting to hear about (GSPC) us right now,” Unsal said. “We need to keep that momentum going.”