How 3 FUEL Partners Are Rethinking Child Development

Supporting early childhood means supporting families and meeting them where they are.

Support for children’s learning and development takes many forms — from universal pre-K to food pantries, mutual aid networks, and immigrant advocates keeping families together. FUEL for 50 is designed to support the whole spectrum of organizations that eliminate barriers for families living in poverty and create pathways for young children to succeed.

FUEL for 50 is an initiative of the Fund for Early Learning (FUEL), a $50 million fund dedicated to promoting the early brain development of 0–3-year-olds living in poverty in New York City. Over the past five years, FUEL has supported a range of community partners, who have taught us the importance of meeting people where they are and elevating them to drive programming and decision making. Here we’ve highlighted three current partners, who we hope can inspire other organizations to see how their work supports early learning and apply to FUEL for 50.

Elevate Policy Lab

The MOMS (Mental Health Outreach for Mothers) Partnership is an evidence-based but community-driven program focused on the mental health needs of overburdened and under-resourced mothers. Developed by the Elevate Policy Lab, the MOMS Partnership model has expanded to several cities across the country and has been working to support mothers across the five boroughs through its partnership with FUEL.

The MOMS Partnership targets maternal depression, addressing a basic need for low-income women and improving long-term outcomes for young children. Caregivers’ mental health impacts children’s development both directly and indirectly. Along with struggling to be attentive and create a positive learning environment for their children, mothers with depression are more likely to lose their jobs and face stress and instability. The MOMS model has reduced depressive symptoms for 75% of its participants, and families who complete the program are 50–65% more likely to be able to meet their basic needs. For children, that means improved school readiness and long term economic and social mobility.

The MOMS Partnership model creates a space for mothers themselves to define their mental health needs and how they hope to be supported. Elevate does this by employing community mental health ambassadors — mothers from the community with lived experience — who serve as a liaison between the clinician and the population served. Community mental health ambassadors serve an important role supporting and advocating for mothers through group-based therapy.

United for Brownsville

United for Brownsville (UB) is a collaboration between SCO Family of Services and Community Solutions that aims to improve language and social-emotional developmental outcomes for children ages 0–3 living in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Brownsville is a neighborhood with a long history of activism in response to systemic racism and inequity, particularly when it comes to education. A core part of UB’s mission is the belief that parents and service providers are experts who bring unique strengths and experiences to their parenting and professional lives. UB builds upon the work that is already being done by families, educators, social-service providers, and health care providers. Collectively, they know the best ways to overcome obstacles they face, and UB’s goal is to empower them to continue improving outcomes for infants and toddlers. UB strives for equity and upends top-down approaches to solving complex issues like disparities in early childhood development. Notably, United for Brownsville has been successful in increasing opportunities for Black children to receive the early intervention services they are entitled to, a step toward closing the opportunity gap.

Rather than add a new program or service, United for Brownsville leverages the expertise of their community’s families and social service providers from diverse organizations and disciplines. These local stakeholders identify opportunities to improve practices, devise creative solutions to challenges in early childhood education and health, and transform relationships in ways that help them meet their goals. UB’s model has demonstrated that when they all work better together, children will be ready to learn and ready to succeed.

Children of Promise, NYC

Children of Promise, NYC (CPNYC) takes a holistic approach to combating poverty, providing both therapeutic empowerment services and youth development for children who have an incarcerated parent. Incarceration and poverty go hand in hand: adults who are incarcerated are more likely to experience long-term instability, recidivism, and loss in earnings, and their children suffer socially and economically as a result. While incarcerated, parents also notably miss out on the key experiences and nurturing relationships that support young children’s development. Even as 15–20% of children in the child welfare system have a parent in prison, this population is often underserved when it comes to social supports — and CPNYC has answered the call with an innovative, community-building model.

To help build supportive relationships and address the trauma of incarceration, CPNYC blends mental health services with recreational programming. As a designated Article 31 organization, they are certified to provide therapeutic services to children and their families — but they do so in a way that reduces the stigma of mental health and creates a community of children in a similar situation who can lean on each other. At Children of Promise, young people can play basketball, hit the computer lab, and then work with their mental health clinician. CPNYC works with the parents just as much as they do the children, facilitating bi-weekly workshops led by clinicians and following the MOMS Partnership model mentioned above.

CPNYC is also community-led, empowering its members rather than speaking from above. As an organization, CPNYC gives deference to a parental advisory board, developed as a source of wisdom and ingenuity for programmatic ideas and cultural adaptation. Their recommendations have included hiring a parent engagement coordinator — someone who had a child in the program previously — to serve as an ambassador to liaise with other parents. CPNYC’s caregiver-informed model for evolving and growing their services informed our approach to FUEL for 50.

Supporting early childhood means supporting families and meeting them where they are. And empowering communities means providing a platform to advocate for their needs and support to address their everyday challenges. We know that New Yorkers out there are working day in and day out to support families in need, and we are excited to hear about new approaches in the coming weeks.

If you know an organization doing great work in your neighborhood, tell them about FUEL for 50! And if you’re part of a program that supports parents or caregivers, we hope you’ll apply or get in touch.

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FUEL for 50 is a new Robin Hood initiative to “fuel” community-based organizations and strengthen early childhood learning and development throughout New York City. From an open call for applications, Robin Hood will award no-strings-attached funding and assistance to 50 programs that support parents and caregivers of NYC children ages 0–3. All applications are due by November 19, 2021.