Shiawassee GSC Uses Creative Financing To Support Local Early Childhood Initiatives

By Brenda Brissette-Mata

OWOSSO - Generally, one plus one equals two, but in Shiawassee County one plus one often adds up to a whole lot more. And that’s a very good thing given local needs and lack of resources. 

In fact, leveraging resources is becoming something of an art form in communities in every corner of the state served by Great Start Collaboratives – especially when those resources are directed at getting young children to the schoolhouse door safe, healthy and ready for learning and life.

Shiawassee County’s Great Start Collaborative (GSC), for instance, has used creative financing to braid, blend and leverage more than $1 million to support local early childhood initiatives. The blended funding has allowed agencies to fund and share positions, eliminating or minimizing duplication of services and expanding the value of each important funding dollar.

A recent example: Shiawassee County Community Mental Health Authority (CMH) wanted to increase its ability to reach families in need of their services.

“We knew they really wanted to rebrand themselves,” said Emily Brewer, coordinator of the Shiawassee County GSC. “We thought about having them involved in the process for screening young children for developmental issues. We knew that by just giving (CMH) 15 percent, they could draw down 85 percent federal money to match our 15 percent, rather than us spending the money on a staff person and CMH hiring a staff person. By funding that job together we were better able to serve the families of this county. We made those dollars go farther.”

About the same time the local hospital, Memorial Healthcare, stepped into the mix providing a medical educator with money from the Cook Family Foundation, CMH and the Regional Education Service District (RESD) combined.

Following Michigan’s “Assuring Better Child Development Project” model, Memorial’s medical educator teaches area doctors to use a research-based developmental screening tool embraced by the American Academy of Pediatrics. If problems are identified early, a child can be connected with appropriate services. Often issues can be addressed before they become long-term, requiring more intensive – and expensive - services.

Such enlightened collaboration is fundamental to efforts to build an early childhood system in Shiawassee County, Brewer said. She credits former GSC Coordinator Don Trap with laying the groundwork.

“He got the agencies to the table. There is a spirit of collaboration in Shiawassee County, a lot of trust, and it all had to do with Don Trap building those relationships (among agencies) years ago.”

Trap, in turn, says if it weren’t for the Great Start Collaborative and the strategic planning process that the GSC facilitated and encouraged "we would not have brought the people to the table."

"One of the things the GSC initially required was the financial assessment. To see what monies were coming into the county and from what various sources," Trap said. "That was the cause to bring the directors of the major agencies and the hospital together to begin talking about that, which led not only to the financial leveraging, but to other initiatives."

Another recent example came when the Shiawassee GSC went to work blending funds in order to increase the number of local children enrolled in prekindergarten classes.

“The Great Start Readiness Program is a state-funded preschool with each district getting a certain amount of slots for it,” Brewer said. A competitive grant can be written to start a preschool, but Brewer said it started to make more sense to “write the grant together and split the funds between all of the local districts so that they can have more slots and run more successful programs.”

They collectively wrote two grants through nonprofit agencies - Baker College of Owosso and Looking Glass Community Services - with the agencies acting as fiduciaries of the grants. With the success of the collectively written grant, the agencies already running preschools pulled together.

“Instead of competing against each other, we pooled the slots and asked each community how many slots they needed. In the end everybody wins,” Brewer said.

Especially children and their families. With the coordinated effort and blended financing, they were able to get enough funding to send 200 more children to preschool.

“No extra start-up costs, no extra administrative programs, the money goes straight to the kids,” Brewer said.

Those successes have prompted other projects to emerge. “Other agencies are listening and saying 'Hey, I want to play, too,’” Brewer said.

For example, a recent smaller partnership with the MSU Extension office and the Great Start Readiness Program allowed MSU to have an extra $25,000 to hire a parent educator. 

Brewer explained: “A preschool teacher was spending 20 hours on classroom education teaching children about food and nutrition. MSU can count those 20 hours and get money for 20 hours of service that can be given to a parent educator. Diet, nutrition, exercise … the children are learning, the parents are learning, the whole family benefits. Zero money spent. Just a reconfiguration. Just by bringing in matching dollars, no money was spent.”

Brewer said it is imperative that the agencies and people involved in these decisions agree to think about children first.

“Luckily all the agencies (in Shiawassee County) understand that early childhood is where we need to concentrate our efforts. Many of these agencies serve the whole population, cradle to grave, really. But they all agree that early childhood is the most important place to focus our efforts.”







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