Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 10, 2013

You might say that Smart Start Rowan is one of the county’s best-kept secrets — but it doesn’t want to be.

“We hear all the time, ‘We didn’t know you were here,’” says Laura Villegas, the agency’s director of programs.

Part of the problem is that the agency’s audience — children ages birth to 5, is always changing, says John Gerstenmier, executive director. The other challenge is that the agency partners with so many other agencies in the county, Gerstenmier notes, “that we’re not always the first tier of contact.”

An example is Katherine Generaux, a community inclusion specialist with Partners in Learning (PIL). Generaux, however, is a PIL employee of a contracted Smart Start Activity. The same is true in relationships with other agencies. Other community partners include Families First NC, Head Start, Rowan-Salisbury and Kannapolis City schools, Partners in Learning, Rowan County Health Department and numerous child care centers and family child care homes.

These relationships are crucial, Gerstenmier explains, “because these direct service providers are direct touch points with the community and its children. We need the majority of parents to contact us for SSR to refer their children for services.”

Only one in four children ages birth to five in the county is in a licensed child care setting, Gerstenmier says. Which means that three out of four children are not in child care — their families either don’t need it or can’t afford it.

“We have high-quality child care centers here,” Gerstenmier says, “but quality costs.”

So Smart Start looks to reach out to parents in other ways: through doctors’ offices by the Reach Out and Read literacy program and the ABCD screening program, for example. Both of these are Smart Start programs. Through this relationship, Smart Start can get referrals for children who need additional services from the child’s physician.

Smart Start has three traditional areas of focus in the community: family support, health and early care and education. Gerstenmier likes to add a fourth: literacy, through the Reach Out and Read program and Imagination Library.

Imagination Library is a program in which books go directly to a child’s home. Enrollment forms are available at SSR, the library, and for a fee of $30 a year, a child receives 12 books.

“The goal is to build a home library,” Gerstenmier says.

As unbelievable as it might sound, there are homes that Smart Start serves where there is no appropriate reading material for children, Villegas says. “We hear parents say how excited their children are to get books.”

Even infants can be enrolled in the program, Gerstenmier says, “because we want to encourage parents to read to their children. Children have to learn the mechanics of reading: how to hold books, how to turn the pages.”

He continues, “We’re trying to break a cycle. We have too many young parents who were never taught to love reading.”

Under the area of family support, along with Reach Out and Read, Smart Start administers the Parents as Teachers and Circle of Parents programs. With Parents as Teachers, parent educators visit families at home and play developmental games and activities with the entire family, ensuring children are reaching their developmental milestones. Many referrals to other agencies can come out of these visits.

“Parents as Teachers is a wonderful program,” says Ashley Smith, mom to Ashton. “It has helped me learn a lot. I never grew up around babies so I didn’t know very much. I always worried if I was a good parent and if I was doing the right things. It’s made me more confident in my parenting skills. I love this program because you learn so much stuff.”

“I enjoy the whole hour every two weeks. Ashton and I look forward to it! Thank you so much for helping me on my journey to become a great parent.”

Circle of Parents is a weekly support group at which parents learn about community resources as well as parenting strategies while developing new friends with common interests.

“This program has been very beneficial for my family,” says Juana Garcia Cruz, a member of the Circle of Parents Latino group. “It has served as a guide for our children. It helps our children develop as we grow in knowledge as mothers. We will continue to put into practice what we have learned.”

Under early care and education, a program that Smart Start administers is the N.C. Pre-K Program, the former More at Four program. This program is provided in collaboration with private child-care centers, Head Start and elementary schools. Some 331 4-year-olds at 16 sites across the county benefit from this pre-kindergarten program.

“It’s a good working relationship,” says Joanna Smith, executive director of St. John’s Child Development Center, which recently began an N.C. Pre-K Program. “I’m just thankful we get funds from Smart Start to support the center. This program with assessment tools and other resources are really helpful.”

There’s also an Early Learning Resource Center based at Smart Start, 1839 W. Jake Alexander Blvd., from which parents can check out developmentally appropriate games and resource materials. During 2011-2012, the center had visits from 231 child-care professionals and 232 families.

One of those families is Rosetta Zimmerman, whose daughter Kendra has special needs.

“I wanted educational toys for her that stimulate her and help her learn as she plays,” Zimmerman says. “She has enjoyed these toys very much. They have helped her learn new concepts and skills. It has been helpful not to have to invest money in toys that after a while she would tire of.”

The agency also reaches out to support the community by encouraging its staff to serve on other advisory boards and agencies.

For more information about Smart Start Rowan, call 704-630-9085.