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Kristen Lundgren

Kristin Lundgren, director of impact for United Way of Yellowstone County, greets participants of the Best Beginnings event Friday.

TAILYR IRVINE, Gazette Staff

From battling bedbugs to closing "the 30 million word gap," the agencies and businesses that are part of Best Beginnings Yellowstone County spent an hour Friday celebrating their accomplishments before looking to the future to begin tackling the many remaining challenges that young children and their families face.

As part of Best Beginnings coalitions around the state, the local group “seeks to get children on the right trajectory for life,” ultimately ensuring, among other things, a stronger local economy, said Kristin Lundgren, United Way of Yellowstone County’s director of impact.

“You can go back and fix a foundation” with such interventions as prison terms, she told a group of more than 50 people meeting at United Way’s West End office, “but Best Beginnings is about making sure our community gets that foundation right from the start.”

That’s why a $4,000 grant from the Montana Community Foundation — recently renewed — went to purchase equipment to eliminate bedbugs at shelters including the Montana Rescue Mission.

Since “most moms will never set foot in a parenting class,” Bright Beginnings is seeking grant funding to start the Bright by Text program, a service designed for parents and caregivers of children under five. Bright by Text regularly sends free activities, games and resources straight to parents' cell phones. Its messages are targeted to the child’s age and include information on child development, language and early literacy, health and safety, and behavioral tips.

The coalition also hopes to partner with the LENA Research Foundation for devices that Lundgren described as “baby pedometers” to measure the number of “nutritious words” the child hears every day — not necessarily words coming from the television, but, say, a father reading or singing to his child. By age 3, a low-income child hears on average 30 million fewer words than their middle-income peers, Lundgren said.

“Best Beginnings has been laying tracks for early childhood in our county for four years,” said David Munson, director of Early Childhood Intervention. “If we work with families, we can get to children” by building confidence, competence and capacity in families, he said.

“Even if you don’t like children,” he told the crowd, “the economic benefits (of these efforts) are incredible.”

Parents who wouldn’t benefit as much from targeted text messages may instead respond to the concept of a gathering place, where they can connect “with real people and access real services” at places scattered around town, hopefully within walking distance.

Best Beginnings seeks a widening of medical insurance coverage to provide 1-3 home visits by a nurse to a mother who has just given birth.

As they brainstormed together Friday, groups envisioned new services that could be explored. One group thought that intergenerational living could prove beneficial across the age divide: older residents would, say, provide free childcare for their neighbor in exchange for the parents moving their living room furniture around.

As they’ve built Best Beginnings together, partners have found that a common barrier parents express to seeking available services is the fear of “being judged as a bad parent,” Lundgren said.

“Most services come when people have committed a crime, so of course there’s a stigma there, but the reality is we all need help as parents,” she said.

“All of these ideas,” Lundgren said, summing up Friday’s brainstorming, “require only one thing — a champion” to help make the idea happen.



City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.