By founding board member, Sylvia Echols

About 1994, a group of folks came to a large gathering at the Rock Hill School District office for an informational breakfast. Representatives from the Alliance for SC Children presented a program about the dismal status of children in York County. Alarming statistics were shared. The one that resonated with so many was the high percentage of children entering school not ready. But perhaps the most moving presentation was that of Ruth Carpenter, a counselor in one of our elementary schools. This consisted of her reading the self referrals she gets from children. It was sobering and the thing that was most motivating. Of the over 200 in attendance, about 60 signed up to do something to make a difference for our children. These were people from all over York County.

This group became smaller but highly motivated and named itself the York County Alliance for Children. It began meeting and looking for ways to address the problems we had learned about. We became aware of a program developed by the Children’s Defense Fund led by Marion Writght Edelman in Washington, DC. Edelman is a lawyer who grew up in Pageland, SC. She was the first black woman to become a part of the Mississippi Bar. When she moved to Mississippi, she saw tragic hunger in so many children so she went to DC and testified before Congress about the situation. Nothing came of this so she invited Robert Kennedy, the US Attorney General, and others from Congress to come see. She called it a Child Watch. When they saw, they came back and acted to include the beginning of the Women Infants and Children Program, commonly known as WIC as well as other initiatives.

Seeing was believing.

Some of us on the Alliance decided that we needed a Child Watch to show our local leadership the state of our children and the need for intervention. Gale DiGiorgio and I agreed to chair this endeavor.  The Junior Welfare League stepped up with financial assistance and manpower. Many others saw the need and we formed several acting committees. After a few months of intensive planning, we hosted over 50 guests whom we dubbed York County’s “movers and shakers” to our Child Watch.

The day began with a continental breakfast at the County Complex in York. This was followed by a video that clearly showed that when a child is not read to, talked to, sung to, etc. when they are very young, it reduces the synapses in the brain and prevents them from reaching their potential. In this instance, the child grew up to have a severe speech problem as well as social/emotional issues.  The video was impactful.

We then loaded our guests into borrowed vans with volunteer drivers and a host on each. They traveled very specified routes, but all different. They saw the conditions in which some of our children live, some of the existing efforts to help children, and how great the need was.  All vans traveled to Pilgrims Inn, a local homeless shelter and child care center, where we had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch as did the children.  The program’s efforts were explained while we ate.  From there we traveled to Winthrop University to hear a gentleman who was a strong advocate for children and the state CEO for BB&T bank.  He gave an excellent motivating talk.

We then served lovely refreshments.  Early on in this planning, Dr. Seymour Simmons, a Winthrop University art professor had shared with us that Winthrop was going to be hosting an exhibit of terminally ill children’s art work that had been collected by the eminent child psychiatrist at Harvard, Dr. Robert Coles.  We ended our day by inviting our guests to view this exhibit.  It was very sobering.

The result of this community wide effort was the formation of Success By 6 which was an outreach program being encouraged by the national United Way.  Their goals and ours seem to mesh perfectly.  The Junior Welfare League provided start up money for the first two years and we were in business. We were fortunate to hire Julie Neely as our first director. She was fresh our of graduate school with two masters degree. She was so adept at initiating a non profit, writing grants and presenting a wonderful image for York County’s Success By 6.

One of the most important and helpful outcomes of the Child Watch was the formation of a strong board.  We determined that we would always be county-wide in an attempt to meet some of the great need in the western part of the county and to not allow children to be left out because of their zip code.

We had representation from all four main areas who were invested in this cause.  One board member was Dr. Tony Digiorgio, president of Winthrop University.  He allowed Success By 6 to be housed on the Winthrop campus as it still is.  This gave us rent free space and free technology support. This has been extremely important in our remaining solvent through grants and donations. Additionally, he hosted our first orientation which was done by personel from the Success By 6 in Greenville.

Another motivator for our work was the research that came out about the brain development in the first four years of life. We knew, anecdotally, that children who were read to, who were secure and loved, fared better than others in school and life.  But this was the first time that we could see the difference in brain scans.

When Julie Neeley, our first director, accepted another position, we hired Donna Wooldridge.  We had a second Child Watch which was done by members of the Junior League. This one was not as involved as the first one but had tremendous impact.  A great outcome was that Dr. Martha Edwards traveled with us to Hickory Grove School and saw how great the need was for children to have accessible dental and medical care. Dr. Edwards then became a stalwart champion for all of our causes and continues to be. One of the League members who led this second Child Watch was Teresa Creech, who was then hired to assist Donna Wooldridge. Donna became ill and eventually could no longer work. Teresa then became the executive director.  Another League member, Shannon League, became Teresa”s assistant.

Programming always centered around helping parents understand the value of reading to their children from birth.  This not only  helps with literacy but more importantly provides bonding time, relationship building, and a love of books. Additionally, we became very concerned about the need for free medical care for the working poor and uninsured.  This led to the establishment of resource centers in all four school districts.  Dr. Edwards, Dr. Butch Bonham, and Dr. Susan Smart volunteered their time and professional skill.  The resource centers offered space to other agencies so that they could be more of a one-stop shop for parents and children.  Adult education with childcare provided, York County First Steps, English as a second language, mental health counseling and parent education were some of the offerings. Once these resource centers were established, we no longer met the criteria of Success By 6, as it was only to be an initiative without programming. Under the leadership of Steven Cox, we became the Early Learning Partnership, with our own non profit status. We were blessed with extremely good board leadership to include Steven, John Gettys, Jim Vining, and others.

The Dolly Parton Imagination Library was begun for the county, but because of the restrictions, we could not just offer to those most in need. This resulted in it becoming a very expensive program.  The program cost our organization $30 per child per year.  We eventually paid this down and discontinued the program. Perhaps the most relevant program that was begun was Reach Out and Read, and we continue it to this day.  ROR allows doctors to give a child at each well visit and an age and culturally appropriate book. The parents are encouraged to read and later the book can be used as a way for the pediatrician to assess the child’s progress and development.