Commentary: West Virginia children are worth the investment

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By Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball
For The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- This is the time of year when we decide on West Virginia's priorities through legislation and the budget process. There is no higher priority for the state than the wellbeing of West Virginia's youngest children. Funding early childhood education is not only the right thing to do, it's a smart investment for the state.

The governor's proposed budget cuts early childhood programs, including home-visitation, child abuse prevention, and Family Resource Networks. Those cuts could jeopardize millions in matching funds these programs receive. If we cut investments for young children now, things will only be worse in the long run.

I believe in the importance of investing in young children. An investment in our children now helps the present, as well as the future, and encourages families to believe that they are important in today's world. Early childhood education and intervention sets the stage for helping our children and youth grow into good, strong, faithful and compassionate leaders and citizens for the future. These programs help our children to mature and grow, gain a sense of self-worth and value, and develop respect for themselves and others. All children deserve this opportunity, and if one of our goals is to live in health and peace with one another, the world needs children and their families to have it.

I faced significant challenges in my early childhood education, including language development. Without loving parents who felt empowered to do what they needed to do, and without resources and a supportive community to help, I doubt I could have overcome my challenges to succeed in school and become the person I am today. My own daughter was born with a medical condition that, without proper medical care and diagnosis, would have led to numerous surgeries and the possibility of a lifetime crippling condition. Because of my childhood experience and my daughter's, I have walked with and advocated for children and families regarding childhood education and medical intervention.

Children living in poverty need our advocacy and intervention. We can make a difference today on the health and welfare of our state by the actions we take on behalf of children, actions that will bring true hope and life for the future.

The research about early child development shows that the first three years of life are critically important in shaping social, emotional and cognitive intelligence. These years lay the foundation for a lifetime of adaptability and resilience

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study findings suggest that certain experiences are major risk factors for the leading causes of illness and death as well as poor quality of life in the United States. The authors of the study conclude that, "Progress in preventing and recovering from most of the nation's worst health and social problems is likely to benefit from understanding that many of these problems arise as a consequence of adverse childhood experiences."

Other studies show how adverse experiences create a stress response, which becomes the mechanism for physical changes to the body and the brain. While some stress is normal and positive in human development, constant or toxic stress responses can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent and prolonged adversity. Such adversity includes physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, substance abuse or mental illness. Toxic stress is particularly harmful for the developing brain if there is no mediating adult support.

Another study looked at language development in young children. By the time they enter kindergarten, children of professional families are often light years ahead of children of non- professional families in terms of their command of language.

These studies connect the dots between adversity and poverty in alarming ways, but they also give us a hopeful way forward out of generational dysfunction and poverty.

Every person can take the time to nurture a child; every church can support a family in crisis; every community can support families of young children and provide the resources they need to raise healthy and happy children. At the state and federal level, we can provide funding to support programs that help young children thrive.

We have seen the consequences of poverty and family dysfunction. We know the remedies. Now is the time to make a commitment at every level to end childhood poverty in West Virginia.

Ball is the resident and presiding bishop of the West Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. (Renate Pore, health policy analyst for West Virginians for Affordable Health Care; Stephen Smith, director of  West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition; and Rachel Tompkins, former president of the Rural School and Community Trust also contributed to this commentary.)