Monroe Great Start Parent Coalition wields a powerful ARMM

By Brenda Brissette Mata

ERIE - Members of the Monroe County Great Start Parent Coalition (GSPC) like to say the group has a great, big ARMM, as in “Advocacy, Recruiting, Mentor and Media.”

“We like to say that the Parent Coalition is the arm of the Great Start Collaborative,” said Amy Zarend, liaison for the coalition. “We even adopted the acronym ARMM.”

The acronym describes the tools of effective advocacy, and the group has been so effective at using them that it earned the Fierce Heart Award in 2009. The award is given each year by the Early Childhood Investment Corporation (ECIC) for outstanding advocacy on behalf of young children.

A key part of the Monroe coalition’s ARMM strategy is events. The group stages up to three per week, whether it’s a family fun event, backpack distribution or helping out at a local soup kitchen.

At each event, the coalition distributes membership forms and letters of support for funding for early childhood.

The letters, pre-addressed to local representatives and the governor, need only a signature.

Zarend said many people aren’t comfortable writing to their state representative, so providing them with a form letter puts many at ease. The letters have been a huge success.

“Every month we cut them and mail them in big, bulk boxes to each representative,” she said.

The letters have created a strong impression among elected officials. Not long ago, Zarend said a representative from the governor’s office, after receiving a large number of letters in support of early childhood, called Nancy Thompson, coordinator for the local GSC and asked, “What’s going on in Monroe County?”

What’s going on is a lot of people are getting involved in advocating for early childhood programs. The parent coalition’s distribution list for event materials tops a thousand people.

“We estimate well over 2,000 people are seeing our information. One member runs a preschool and she sends out our information to all her preschool families. Another member sends it to her church group.”

At every event, coalition members talk to people they meet about Great Start and why it is important for area businesses to be on board in the push for early childhood education.

“We need to be everywhere,” she said. “If there’s a car seat check, we ask if we can be there and have a table and get out our information. And then we advertise the car seat check to our distribution list. Everybody comes out ahead. We want to be everywhere.”

The group’s reach is such that local businesses now ask the coalition to attend their local events.

“They know that if we show up we’re going to send out the information to our e-mail list and bring lots of people with us,” Zarend said. “It’s a great marketing tool. Businesses get their name e-mailed to 1,100 people and it gets passed on from there.”

When they arrive, coalition members aren’t shy in sharing statistics and information with the public about the importance of early childhood.

“Someone says, ‘Well, I have a 10-year-old, so early childhood isn’t important,’ and we tell them, ‘Oh, yes it is.’
Child-care is critical to early learning and development. Programs and supports for parents will save this state money, not cost it more,” Zarend said. “We need to build a statewide system of programs and supports for children zero to five and their parents. We tell people ‘It doesn’t matter how old your children are, it’s about our (collective) future.’”

Zarend, the coalition’s leader since 2006, says her passion for the subject makes her job easy.

“I know what it felt like to learn you’re going to be a parent and feel like you don’t know where to turn for information. We’ve had tremendous growth in this county, but we’re not done yet. We are dropping the pebble in the pond and watching the ripple effect.”