The three-story building that sits on Lexington Street in Rocky Mount doesn’t feel like your average child welfare agency. The walls of its cozy offices are adorned with colorful murals and photos of smiling children engaged in busy activities. On one floor there is a demonstration child-care facility –complete with Chuck E. Cheese-like equipment, including a slide and a ball pit– where providers and parents receive on-going training. On another floor, this training is further enhanced by a well-stocked lending library with volumes on parenting and child supervision.
Though quick to characterize it as a collective effort, the Down East Partnership for Children (DEPC) was largely the vision of its founder and executive director, Henrietta Zalkind.
"It’s a whole different model," says Zalkind, whose upbeat demeanor is as welcoming as the facility she directs. DEPC was developed to "create a continuum of social services and a bridge linking service providers with each other and with parents." By sharing information about what everyone in our area was doing to help young children" says Zalkind, "we could agree to work together, and collaborate on our long term goals."
While servicing Nash and Edgecombe counties, DEPC’s mission is to improve the plight of families and children "through advocating and supporting high quality, life-long education, and facilitating a trusted and coordinated system of community services." It focuses its efforts in four areas. DEPC helps local child-care facilities attain the highest level of accreditation. It provides assistance with child-care to low-income parents who work or attend school. It develops family resource centers for the community. DEPC also coordinates its efforts with the health care and business communities to address such child health risks as lead poisoning.
The scope of its services for children is impressive. Between 2001 and 2002, DEPC gave financial assistance to 351 kids for early childhood education programs rated three stars or above, assisted 688 children with getting school immunizations, and facilitated 2435 vision screenings, 1270 language/developmental assessments and 1664 dental evaluations or treatments. DEPC’s assistance to families has been equally active and widespread. During the same period, 5953 families participated in short-term family support programs, 1461 in long-term ones, 592 families took advantage of DEPC’s childcare referral services, and 52 received crisis-related child care support. Such emergency support allows a family time to work through crises, thereby minimizing the risks of abuse and neglect.
Zalkind believes the key to such success is flexibility. "You miss opportunities if you are not flexible," she says. Zalkind stresses the importance of "finding common ground" with the many child-related organizations in these counties, as well as creatively responding to funding cuts. "With traditional social services, their funds are so tied up in rules and regulations that they don’t have a whole lot of flexibility to think outside the box," says Zalkind. "But you’ve got to let your vision drive you, and seize your opportunities as you move forward."
"You can drive from here to California in a Lexus, or you can drive from here to California in a Ford Focus," continues Zalkind. "But you can still get to California."
Zalkind has traveled her own path. The Philadelphia native attended the University of Massachusetts and the Northeastern School of Law in Boston. She then served as an education attorney in the 1980s with Legal Services in Providence, RI. Zalkind advocated for educational equity for disadvantaged students, especially in the arenas of vocational, bi-lingual and special education. Zalkind credits this experience with exposing her to "how very fortunate I was growing up in a family that was, and continues to be, supportive. I saw so many people who –if they had had a family that was in a position to support them differently, both financially and emotionally– would have made it. But they didn’t. They simply never had a person there who could take them under their wing."
Zalkind committed herself to providing such a wing. In 1994, four years after relocating to Rocky Mount to manage Eastern Carolina Legal Services, Zalkind took on the challenge of heading up DEPC. And it was a challenge. At the time, child care profiles for Nash and Edgecombe counties were dismal. Quality child care was difficult to find and many who cared for children in their homes were unqualified or ill-equipped. Rates of infant mortality were among the highest in the state.
Zalkind’s stewardship of DEPC for the past decade clearly has made a difference in what had been a dismal situation. According to the 2002 NC Children’s Index, during roughly the same period, the number of children in publicly subsidized day care in Nash increased 49 percent. In Edgecombe, the number of kids enrolled in child care rose 46 percent. In addition, the infant mortality rate decreased 19 percent.
"Henrietta brought community leaders together from both counties to commit to working together to better the lives of children," says DEPC Board Chair Marie Inscore, who has lived her entire life in both counties. Inscore stresses the significance of this feat given that Nash and Edgecombe are divided by railroad tracks –literally and figuratively. She notes the disparities in wealth between the more affluent Nash and its eastern neighbor. "It would have been hard for anyone from here to have done what she’s done," continues Inscore, explaining that Zalkind’s external perspective, fence-mending abilities and passion for advocacy were a much-needed asset. "Henrietta is very good at getting people to reach consensus without hurting anyone’s feelings."
Just as notable is Zalkind’s refusal to allow DEPC’s services to collapse in the face of the massive budget cuts and economic woes affecting North Carolina over the past two years. Along with flexibility and creativity, Zalkind emphasizes the need for "stamina. This is very hard work, and there are no easy answers." "We continually monitor" our situation and try to "figure out what the next change is, and how to keep everybody motivated toward the same vision." Along with these complexities, Zalkind says it’s "just the sheer volume of what it is we’re trying to do. It’s hard to have everything constantly changing. You have to keep reinventing yourself, and particular strategies only take you so far – whether you have the money for them or not."
Accordingly, even with the current economic climate, Zalkind and DEPC’s commitment to the future of children in Edgecombe and Nash counties is unbending. DEPC was recently selected as one of eight sites nationwide to take part in the Kellogg Foundation’s SPARK initiative. The Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids plan aims to prepare children for school entry and on-going scholastic success via the realization of "learning communities" -a supportive collaboration of families, schools and the community.
"It’s a five-year plan that really builds on what we’ve already done here," explains Zalkind. "It takes us a level deeper, concentrating the services we’ve developed and packaging them for 500 of the most vulnerable kids in the community to ensure their success in school."
Though the initiative is still being developed, Zalkind’s efforts have already sparked a brighter future for thousands of children and families in the Down East region of North Carolina.
"You can keep the system moving," insists Zalkind. "And that’s what we’re about -creating systematic change." But to do so, she adds "you’ve got be in it for the long haul."
Apparently, Zalkind is. While she didn’t grow up Down East, she has proven her staying power and her commitment to make a better life for children and their families in these two NC counties.
"It’s been a very rewarding experience," says Zalkind, with a smile. In the long run, however, it is the children, parents and child care providers in Nash and Edgecombe counties who will continue to reap the rewards of Zalkind’s fine advocacy and hands-on assistance.