Actress Jennifer Garner wants to help impoverished children who are “hungry to learn,” because her mother was one.
“To call them poor would be an understatement. They were living in poverty,” Garner said of her mother’s family growing up. “But if you hear my mom talk about it, you wouldn’t know it because they had a very rich life together in their small house.”
Garner, a former Charleston resident and an artist ambassador for the advocacy group Save the Children, spoke to the Southern Legislative Conference on Tuesday about her family’s triumphs amid poverty.
Her mother’s communication with her family and practice with reading and writing from a very young age helped her overcome all struggles to succeed as an adult, Garner said.
That early focus on social and emotional development is a key component in Save the Children’s plan — a program that provides impoverished families with childhood education, zoning in on literacy and healthy lifestyle choices.
“To sing songs or read poems to your kids or just baby talk back to them seems so elementary that you can’t believe it isn’t happening, but it’s not,” Garner said. “If you’re living alone in poverty and you’re afraid, it’s not a great environment to raise kids in, but it can be if you just have a little support.”
That’s why program coordinators across the country team up with teen mothers and parents in need to show them ways to benefit their children’s future, even as infants.
Garner brought the first arm of the international organization to West Virginia in 2010, and said growing up in Charleston is what inspired her to become an advocate.
“Growing up here, I witnessed a different kind of poverty,” she said. “As I grew up, I noticed this gap between my mother’s hopeful, forward-looking childhood and what I saw a town or two away from me. This gap is what led me to Save the Children.”
The program is used in 11 schools in McDowell, Clay, Roane, Mason and Cabell counties.
Last year, 69 percent of West Virginia participants showed significant reading improvement thanks to the program’s emphasis on guidance and reading materials, according to the organization’s latest data report. That improvement is equivalent to an additional 7.8 months of schooling per year, according to the report.
Mark Kennedy Shriver, senior vice president for Save the Children’s U.S. programs, said the organization is needed now more than ever, with possible federal budget cuts to programs such as Head Start on the horizon.
Half the children in West Virginia between the ages of 3 and 5 are not enrolled in nursery school, preschool or kindergarten, according to the state’s Save the Children report. However, 84 percent of 3-year-olds who have participated in the program scored at or above the normal range for vocabulary acquisition.
“In these tough economic times, we often spend time talking about slices of the pie — what we really need to be talking about is how to expand the pie,” Shriver said. “We believe the best way to do that is to make an investment in our kids. It will show up.”
While Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., pledged $1 million to fund the programs in 2010, other representatives at Tuesday’s conference representing 15 Southern states asked how they could do their part.
Secretary of State Natalie Tennant asked what West Virginia’s elected officials could do to help expand the program.
“Raising the visibility of the issue is really important,” Shriver said. “You can become a strong advocate for it, to the House and the Senate. Kids don’t have anyone to advocate for them.”
Amanda Fragile, Title I director for McDowell County schools, said she’s already seen an improvement in student performance since the school system adopted the program in March. Select elementary schools in McDowell provide after-school programs, intensive reading sessions, healthy-snack times and home visits through Save the Children.
“We’re seeing some success already,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard to let people help, but parents have been really receptive. We just started, but we’re already building relationships and catching kids early.”
For more information about Save the Children, visit www.savethechildren.org.