SPOTLIGHT: Ingham County Great Start

By Brenda Brissette-Mata

LANSING – In 2008, four powerful civic entities – Capital Area United Way, Capital Region Community Foundation, the R.E. Olds Foundation and the Consumers Energy Foundation – became partners in a search for ways to make meaningful and measurable changes in the lives of local youth.

One result: a three-year, $625,000 grant to a fledgling group called the Ingham County Great Start Collaborative (ICGSC).

According to Michelle Nicholson and Ken Sperber, co-coordinators of the ICGSC, the funding group was attracted by
Great Start’s focus on system-building to create efficiencies and collaborations between existing 0-5 programs.

“They wanted to see something that would offer a real, fundamental change and have a long-term impact,” said

Brad Patterson, vice president of program with the Capital Region Community Foundation, said the foundation chose a focus on early childhood for a very good reason.

“It’s the first time in the Lansing region where a community coalition of funders came together and posed the question like investors: ‘Where’s our highest return?’” Patterson said. “We came to the conclusion based on MSU’s Dr. Hiram Fitzgerald’s work on brain science and development. Our highest return on investment is in the zero to five interventions and system improvements in child services.”

Studies show that the early years of a child’s life provide the physical and emotional framework that shapes the adult the child becomes. There’s also strong evidence that investing in early childhood saves schools and the state money by reducing the number of children who repeat early grades, lowering the number of children who need special education and by heading off many who might otherwise end up in the prison system or on welfare.

The funding group set specific goals for its contributions. It wanted the funds spent on parent education (play and learn groups and home visiting); early literacy, including funding of Imagination Library; coaching/professional development for child care centers; and early education and child care scholarships.

Each of the proposed project components includespartnerships (human service agencies, as well as a broad range of community public and private organizations), has measurable outcomes and demonstrative success, includes community commitments (in kind and/or match contributions), is sustainable and scalable, and can serve as a catalyst for system change.

“Collaboration is the big point,” Nicholson said. “Funders like partnering. And at Great Start, collaboration is key.”

The partnership with the funding group came at perfect time for the Ingham GSC, she added.

“We were at a point where we had collected our data and reviewed and developed a strategic plan. We came in able to
say we had a process ready to put in place,” said Nicholson.

That said, building collaboration will take time.

“Systems change is hard,” said Sperber, who has been involved with early childhood for more than 30 years. “We want to see an interconnected network of services that will support families. To build collaborative efforts takes time.”

That process, though, seems to be working.

Already, Capital Area United Way and Capital Region Community Foundation have been so impressed with the
partnership with the ICGSC that they now approach other funding possibilities related to young children by asking how
they will mesh with the local Great Start plan.

For more information on the Ingham County Great Start Collaborative, call Ken Sperber at (517) 332-6516, or e-mail; or call Michelle Nicholson at (517)244-1384, or e-mail