Forty years ago, it was nearly unthinkable to the two dozen or so volunteers at Venice Family Clinic that their organization would one day be the largest free clinic in the country. At the time, the Clinic was struggling just to stay open in the donated dental office where it worked in the evenings, and it wasn't until thirteen years later that it purchased a permanent home.
But beginning in the early Nineties, the Clinic began a growth trend that would continue to this day. After acquiring a second site, next door to the flagship Venice facility, in 1993, it soon took over two L.A. County clinics, opened two school-based health centers, started providing care in a public housing development recreation center (a site that was later replaced by a 3,400-square-foot health center in a nearby retail complex), and moved into a homeless drop-in center. By 2009, Venice Family Clinic had eight sites in Venice, Santa Monica, Mar Vista, and Culver City.
Now add a ninth site, in Inglewood, to the list.
Inglewood has long been one of the poorest and neediest areas in the western part of L.A. County and, as such, has supplied a large number of patients to the Clinic. And that need, as one might suspect, has been heavily concentrated among children. According to 2008 census estimates of Inglewood, more than 20% of families with children live in poverty, and nearly half of single women with children live at or below the federal poverty level.
"When we looked at Inglewood, we found greater need than in any other neighborhood in the program’s service area," explains Stacey Scarborough, Director of Venice Family Clinic's early childhood development program, Children First Early Head Start. "The Clinic's mission compelled us to find a way in."
Children First Early Head Start opened its Inglewood office in March 2010. And it was the perfect program for the situation, not just because of its emphasis on children ages 0 to 3, but also because it emphasizes treating the whole person.
As part of the federally funded Early Head Start program, Children First Early Head Start connects low-income infants, toddlers, and pregnant women with comprehensive medical, dental, and mental health services, plus it provides parents with education in how to interact with their children and keep them safe, all with the goal of making sure children hit their developmental milestones and excel when they begin school.
The Children First Early Head Start Inglewood office employs the "home-based" model, in which staff members visit families' homes, where they provide play opportunities, discuss child safety and nutrition with parents, and make sure children are meeting their developmental milestones. Home visitors also host parent-child interaction groups and education classes and help connect enrollees to medical, dental, and mental health services at Venice Family Clinic and partner agencies.
"This is when children develop their sense of self," Scarborough says. "It's also a crucial time for identifying developmental delays. If we catch their problems early enough, we can literally change the trajectory of their lives."
Early Head Start grew out of Head Start, which was launched in 1965 for children ages 3 to 5. Early Head Start was created in 1995, after a growing body of research indicated the importance of ages 0 to 3 in brain development. The Clinic started its Children First Early Head Start program the same year.
Since then, Early Head Start has proven to be a tremendously successful program nationally. Across the board, research shows that Early Head Start children demonstrate higher cognitive development, higher social-emotional development, higher immunization rates, and larger vocabularies than control groups. And the results show in their parents, too, who report less depression, higher employment, and a higher likelihood to read to and be emotionally supportive of their children.
Unfortunately, despite their great success over the years, Head Start and Early Head Start are being targeted for a whopping 22.4% funding cut by some in Congress.
"The budget deficit is real," explains Kathleen McCartney, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a professor of early childhood development, in a recent op-ed on CNN.com. "Congress will have to make tough choices in the years ahead; however, I worry that the congressional budget recommendations reflect ideology more than evidence. Cutting a cost-effective education program such as Head Start is neither sound fiscal policy nor sound education policy."
In addition to the more than 50 families enrolled at the Inglewood office, Children First Early Head Start serves 130 families out of the Clinic's Simms/Mann Health and Wellness Center and Santa Monica High School sites.
"This is not a need we can ignore," Scarborough says. "Every day matters at this age."
This story appeared in the March 2011 issue of Short Story. Click here to view the entire newsletter.