Filling Homes with the Sound of Learning

By: Sarah Belanger

Sarah Belanger is an Early Childhood Program Specialist. She supervises Early Childhood Home Visitors in Jackson County, Kentucky.

When I think of why we are in Jackson County, lyrics from Paul Simon’s song “Sound of Silence” come to mind: “Silence like a cancer grows/ Hear my words that I might teach you/Take my arms that I might reach you/But my words, like silent raindrops fell/And echoed in the wells/of silence.”

A child not learning causes a type of silence in a community. In the song, Simon compares the growth of silence to cancer, just as a lack of learning can spread ignorance, misinterpretation, and place limitations on a child’s potential.

Members of Jackson County’s communities, however, are realizing that they can change the way their children are learning by committing to early childhood education. I had the privilege of meeting one such mom, Courtney*, who signed up for our Early Steps to School Success (ESSS) program. Targeting children from birth to age five, our program builds strong foundations for parenting and school readiness. As part of the program, a home visitor regularly provides Courtney with information on child development and helped her plan activities that help her use her own skills and resources to support her children’s development. In addition to home visits, ESSS facilitates parent/child groups, book bag exchanges, and community connections.

Courtney was once a young mother from rural Kentucky, who, like many parents in isolated regions, had no idea that her relationships and actions would have a significant impact on her babies’ brain development. For years she survived “on a shoestring” — as they say around here — without a job and succumbing to the temptations poverty presents – one being substance abuse. Although she desired to be a good mother to her three children, they were eventually put in the foster care system.

Having her children taken away motivated Courtney to change her life. She worked hard to recover from drug dependency, and succeeded. In time, she married and had three more children.

I am impressed by the strides Courtney has made to become a better mother. I’ve seen firsthand how she embraced the Early Steps to School Success program and understands now how important it is to read to her children. Through a resource called Vroom — an initiative of the Bezos Family Foundation — she learned that she could have a part in her children’s brain development. The five principles – look, chat, follow, stretch, take turns – help parents understand the science behind their child’s learning. Vroom incorporates activity cards, an app and a playbook as learning tools. It was humbling to hear the sound of children learning in Courtney’s home.

Not only has Vroom and ESSS helped Courtney, but events have been held in all three of the elementary schools in Jackson County to share the Vroom message. Community members have come together to share information as well. Every time a Save the Children home-visitor meets a family, more people in Jackson County hear that they can help their children learn, and make a commitment to teach others to stop the sound of silence.

*Name is changed for privacy

Click here to learn more about Vroom.

The Lost Days of Summer

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Who doesn’t love summer? For millions of kids around the country, it’s a time to have fun and experience new adventures on family vacations, at camp or through locally-organized summer activities. But these experiences are often out of reach for the more than 15 million U.S. children growing up in poverty. Especially those in isolated rural communities such as the small town where Alayshia, 8, lives in Orangeburg County, South Carolina.

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As a result, children from low-income families typically fall two to three months behind in math and reading each summer. Meanwhile, more privileged children keep advancing during those same summer months. Summer learning loss is the biggest reason why children from disadvantaged backgrounds are often three years behind their peers by the time they reach fifth grade¹. Where Alayshia and her brother live, there are no summer programs for them to attend.

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There aren’t many places for them to go either. Sometimes, Alayshia, 8, walks to a nearby friend’s house or her uncle’s. The closest library is tiny and only opens for a few hours on certain days of the week. There is no swimming pool, rec center, or summer camp within reach. “We used to have a little pool,” Alayshia says. “It’s on the trash pile now because it got a hole in it.”

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Alayshia’s mother Novella recently got laid off from the factory where she’s worked on and off for 13 years. After Alayshia eats breakfast and plays video games in the morning, her mom has her and her brother sit down to do some math worksheets and practice reading for half an hour. “I wish there was a summer program for them to go to,” Novella says.

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In neighboring Barnwell County, South Carolina, Ja’Faith wakes up every morning at 5 when her father, a food service manager, returns from letting the milkman into her school. They often read together over breakfast, then Ja’Faith and her brothers play while waiting for the bus to take them to Save the Children’s SummerBoost Camp at their school.

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Ja’Faith, 8, had a tough start in life that her adoptive parents haven’t yet fully explained to her. But they say her early experiences made concentrating in a typical classroom setting challenging. The way SummerBoost Camp mixes games and physical activity with academics has been a big hit with Ja’Faith.

“She loves the program. She hasn’t missed a day,” says her dad, Jack.

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Ja’Faith looks forward to attending SummerBoost each day. “It’s fun,” she says. “I like to learn.”

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At SummerBoost Camp, the day gets started with a call and response game that get the kids excited for a day of learning and fun. Children rotate through blocks of academically-focused activities and games, as well as community service, physical activity and team building.

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The summer program also includes two healthy meals – breakfast and lunch. During the school year, some local kids show up for school hungry on Mondays. For many, the summer months would be especially tough if they couldn’t eat at camp. “They get fed and they stay off the streets,” says Jack. Together with the learning, it’s a winning combination, he says. “Now when school opens up, it’s just a refresher course and they’re ready to go. They didn’t sit around and just watch TV all day or eat popcorn and chips.”

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During the school year, Ja’Faith participates in Save the Children’s after school program, which focuses on helping struggling readers catch up. She has made steady progress through the school year, and her SummerBoost coaches – and her friends – keep her motivated and learning all summer long. That helped Ja’Faith start first grade strong last year and even make the honor role. Her dad says, “I asked Faye a few times ‘What do you want to be? What do you want to do?’ She would always say ‘I want to work for Save the Children, or save a child in some kind of way.’”

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Since SummerBoost runs for six hours, Save the Children can expand its after school focus on literacy and health to cover the “STEAM” subjects – science, technology, engineering, art and math. Here, Ja’Faith and her brother have fun playing a game that helps them practice math equations.

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Back in Orangeburg County, Alayshia and her brother make up their own games in their backyard. When she started second grade at the end of last summer, Alayshia tested as reading at a low first-grade level. Over the course of the school year, Save the Children’s after school program helped her catch up and even reach a third-grade reading level. “She made a whole lot of progress, and I’m proud of her for making that progress,” her mom says. “Now, I’m afraid she might fall off back off and then have to work her way back up to that same progress.”

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With no funding to provide SummerBoost at Alayshia’s school, all that her Save the Children literacy tutors could do at the end of the school year was send home some books with Alayshia and encourage her to keep up her reading. But with no summer program, she also won’t get the extra help she needs in math, which was a big struggle for her this past year. When she returns to school next month, Alayshia will be repeating the second grade.

To learn more about Save the Children’s US Programs, please visit our website

Photo Essay by Susan Warner
Story by Tanya Weinberg

¹Cooper, H., Borman G., & Fairchild, R. (2010). “School Calendars and Academic Achievement.” In J. Meece & J. Eccles (eds.) Handbook on Research on Schools, Schooling, and Human Development (pp. 342-355). 

 

 

The Future Belongs to Educated Girls

This post is part of the blog series, “Her Goals: Our Future,” which highlights the connections between girls and women and the Sustainable Development Goals. It originally appeared on the UN Foundation Blog

 

March marks five years since the conflict in Syria began, the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. Half of the population has been forced to flee their homes, with 6.6 million people displaced inside Syria and another 4.7 million refugees seeking safety and assistance in neighboring countries and Europe. Children are among the most vulnerable of all, bearing the brunt of the war. They are being bombed, facing starvation, and dying from preventable illnesses.

 

For those who manage to escape and find safety in neighboring countries, they can’t escape the psychological trauma. To ensure we don’t lose an entire generation to the effects of war, Save the Children is running schools, distributing healthy foods, and providing support to the war’s youngest survivors. Our team has collected stories of children in Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt.

 

For some of these children, war is all they know.

 

One of the most compelling stories is that of Dana*, a 5-year-old Syrian child currently living in the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan. Her brothers and sisters share what a wonderful place Syria was before the war and how they will return one day, but she doesn’t want to go back as she only remembers the bombs and violence. When Dana was only 3 years old, she was left alone in the house during a bombing in the middle of the night. Her father was able to rescue her, but her house was burned down and her family lost everything.

 

Dana is now in kindergarten at a school Save the Children runs in Jordan. She told our team that she likes learning the letters of the alphabet and playing on the slide with her friends. Dana wants to be a kindergarten teacher one day to help other children learn what she knows.

 

Dana’s mother, Um Rashid*, said, “The future belongs to girls who are educated.” She has seven children, five girls and two boys, between the ages of 3 and 16. The young mother wants to return to Syria one day and admits it is hard to hear Dana say that she never wants to go back to Syria because as refugees that is the only hope they cling to. Yet she is grateful that her children – especially her daughters – are being educated while they are safe in Jordan. She said, “What do they have without education?” Without education they get stuck in marriage at a young age.

 

I agree with Um Rashid that education is key to ensuring a brighter future for Syria. The conflict is complicated, and we must continue to put pressure on world leaders to help stop the fighting, but in the meantime, we owe it to the children to do our part today – individuals can visit SavetheChildren.org to learn more and donate so we can continue to help children survive and learn.

 

*Names have been changed for security reasons.

Syrian Children Have a Right to Go to School

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David Skinner

Director, Education Global Initiative, SCI

Lebanon

February 16, 2016

The statistics are difficult to fathom. There are 1.4 million children who are affected by the war in Syria who are of school age and who are living as refugees in the neighbouring countries: Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. More than half of these children are out of school.

Over the last three years, Lebanon alone has taken into its public education system 150,000 children who are refugees from the conflict in Syria. Accommodating an additional 150,000 children in schools in the United Kingdom would be a challenge. But in Lebanon the proportions are different. In Lebanon there are only 150,000 Lebanese children in the public education system. So the influx of refugee children has meant that every state school in Lebanon has had to double in size in the last three years. Every school – double the size. 

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Syrian children attend classes at a Save the Children supported school for refugees in Tripoli, Lebanon.

In addition, the children who are joining the schools have been subject to severe stress. They have been moved from what was once the security of their homes in Syria. They have seen things that no one – let alone a child – should ever see. And their families are under severe economic stress because of the great difficulty that refugees have finding work in Lebanon. All of these factors are significant barriers to accessing the educational system in Lebanon.

The Lebanese people deserve enormous credit for what they have already done to help Syrian children go to school: schools have introduced a two-shift system; teachers are working longer and longer hours to support the refugee children.

But it is not enough.

There are a further 150,000 children who should be in school, but are not. Although teachers have received some support to help them assist severely stressed children with learning, more needs to be done. Although there is an enormous need to provide support for the youngest children, the provision for pre-school support for refugees is pretty much non-existent.

I am writing this in Lebanon, where I came to look at the kind of support that Save the Children is providing already, as well as the support that we should be providing in the future. Education is a human right, and it is the means by which society equips children with the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in the world. It also saves lives, protects and builds peace.

The Bekaa Valley is – on a good day – a 60-minute drive from Beirut (the Syrian border is only 60 minutes away). It is beautiful: snow-covered mountains on both sides of fertile pasture.

In the gaps between the houses and on random fields in the agricultural areas, landlords have let out spaces to communities of refugees for informal settlements. These consist of flimsy shanty huts. It is the children in these settlements who we are supporting.

One of our projects involves providing early childhood support. We have helped communities find the space and the materials to run early childhood development activities for three to six year olds. The spaces are temporary. We use tents or unfinished buildings; buildings that the owner had started to build but are now unfinished shells. We rent the shell, put in polythene windows, carpets and partitions, and create a serviceable space.

We have also helped find Syrian refugees to act as facilitators (very often refugees who were fully qualified teachers in Syria) alongside facilitators from Lebanon. The centres are packed with young children. They are playing, they are singing. They are drawing and coloring.

But, above all, these children are developing their skills. They are learning how to socialize with children of their own age. They are understanding what a book is; how to hold a pencil. They are sorting objects and starting to understand basic numeracy. This is all done through fun activities and play. Activities that would be recognizable in pre-schools across the United Kingdom.

The centers are very popular with the children and with their parents. It is the sight of children engaged and happy and learning, despite the horrendous experiences they have suffered, that confirms that the work you do is having a genuine and positive impact on the lives of some of the most deprived children.

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Syrian children attend classes at a Save the Children supported school for refugees in Tripoli, Lebanon.

The other activity I visited was a homework support session. I was quietly skeptical about this when I saw it on my itinerary. It sounded a little trivial. But witnessing the reality made it clear quite how wrong I was.

Children from Syria are taught in Arabic. In Lebanon they are taught – after the first few years – in either French or English. Children who have left Syria have very often had to miss significant parts of their education because of instability at home or because of the journeys that they have had to take. They find learning in the Lebanese system hard. So we are helping them.

Most Syrian children attend the afternoon shift of the schools. In the morning we run sessions for a couple of hours, where they can get additional support for their learning. Save the Children’s support goes well beyond simply making sure they do the exercises they have been assigned for homework. It’s effectively remedial help across all the subjects that they are learning. The sessions are wildly popular. The group I visited had forty children in a small – very small – room with four teachers who were providing fantastic assistance. Despite the cramped conditions, the children were taking extraordinary steps in their learning.

Children like the ones I met in the Bekaa Valley have suffered enormously. They are facing an insecure and uncertain future. They don’t have – no one has – any idea when they will be able to go back to their homes in Syria. But they are determined that they are not going to be left behind. They are determined to do what they can to learn. Their parents are determined to help them. And we are determined to make sure that they have their right to learn fulfilled.

To learn more about our response to the Syria crisis, click here

The Best Gift Parents Can Give

This holiday season, Guin and Nate are giving a very special present to their baby and Guin’s two older children, who they raise together: themselves.

 

It used to be that this young couple from rural western Washington state wouldn’t spend much time with the kids. They would hide in their room with the door locked, each of them says.

 

“We’d come out to give them their food or whatever, and then we’d just tell them to go play,” says Guin, 24. “We just shooed them on pretty much. That’s what my parents did to us, and that’s what hurt so bad. That’s what I never wanted to do, but that’s what we ended up doing anyways.”

 

Inside the locked room, Guin and Nate would do drugs. That was their escape, their means to cope. It was a strategy they both learned early in life.

 

“My parents were always gone, or when they were home, they were loaded,” says Guin. “So, we didn’t have bonding time, unless it was a loaded time. Like they were loaded, or just being crazy.”

 

Nate, 21, says his mom was also always gone or drinking, and that his older brother was the only father figure he ever knew. Together they raised their younger brother. Holidays were especially tough.

 

“There were presents under the tree and everything, but there weren’t any parents around. It was just my two brothers,” he says. “It was hard.”

 

As Guin and Nate struggled with their pasts and trying to scrape together a living and a future, they turned to drugs and then each other for comfort. But when the two older kids, 3 and 7, got taken away by the state temporarily last year, they knew something had to change.

 

Getting clean wasn’t easy, but in some ways the regimented recovery program made the path clearer than knowing how to become a good parent — something they desperately want. They say having Hollie in their lives is making a huge difference.

 

As a home visitor in Save the Children’s Early Steps to School Success program, Hollie visits with pregnant mothers and families of babies and toddlers in economically depressed communities. The idea is to teach parents to be their child’s first teacher through reading, talking, singing and playing — and to serve as a resource and support for families struggling with many different challenges.

 

“If Hollie wasn’t here every week helping us with our daughter, I don’t think that we’d be improving so much with our child. She’s helped us be better parents,” says Guin. “I’m grateful for Hollie all the time. Books, man, she brings so many books. My kids are so grateful for the books.”

 

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Children growing up in poverty tend to fall developmentally behind other children long before they ever reach school. Then they struggle to catch up and many never do, making it very difficult for them to break the cycle of poverty. Yet, despite the many risk factors their families face, more than 80 percent of the children in Save the Children’s program go on to score at or above the national norm on pre-literacy tests.

 

Guin and Nate’s baby is only seven months old, but Guin can already see how she’s ahead of where her older kids were at that age. She started rolling over, sitting up, crawling and making her first word sounds much sooner. All the floor time, reading, talking and playing is really working, Guin says.

 

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And, she says, the bond she’s building with her baby is so much stronger from the very beginning.

 

“Hollie has told us that face-to-face play is really important at this age, because they’re learning facial expressions and feelings and all that stuff,” Guin says. “Babies have the coolest facial expressions. They have happy in their eyes is what I say. Happy eyes. I love that.”

 

“I think I beat you in facial expressions,” Nate cuts in.

 

“Yes, he has,” says Guin. They laugh and then reflect on what lies ahead.

 

“Our goal is to make life better for them,” Guin says.

 

“Hopefully, we’re able to achieve that for them,” says Nate. “It’s hard, but we’re getting through it.”

 

“It’ll all be worth it in the end,” says Guin.

 

I can only imagine how difficult it must be for these young parents to turn their lives around, given the rough start in life they both had. It’s wonderful to see the pride Guin and Nate are taking in their parenting and to see their children get the loving attention they themselves missed.

 

This holiday season, I’m grateful for the amazing home visitors like Hollie, who are helping parents be the best they can be.

 

Together with Save the Children, JOHNSON’S® is bringing awareness to the importance of early childhood development (ECD) programs, so that every child can reach their full potential.

 

This holiday season, if you select Save the Children through the Johnson & Johnson Donate a Photo app and donate a baby photo using #SoMuchMore, JOHNSON’S® will triple its donation in support of early childhood education programs.

 

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post

450,000 Children Out of School in Turkey

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Sera Marshall

Communications Coordinator

Turkey

November 23, 2015

On September 28th, schools across Turkey opened their doors for the start of the academic year.

But nearly 450,000 school-aged Syrian children did not step into a classroom that day. Instead of sitting behind a desk, in a safe learning environment, you see many of those kids in cities across Turkey selling tissues on the roadside, running errands in stores or climbing into dumpsters to collect recyclable materials.

In Hatay, where our field office is located, you might see some in the fields picking the cotton harvest at this time of year.

Every child deprived of an education is at risk of becoming part of a 'lost generation'.

Even in the early days of the crisis that now engulfs Syria, many ordinary Syrians who fled to Turkey for safety recognised the need to address the lack of education facilities for their children. Ordinary men and women took it upon themselves to rent space, volunteer their time to teach, find desks, chairs and whiteboards all in an effort to ensure their children would not grow up illiterate, and instead have a future for their own families. 

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Vahar's* family fled their home in Syria when the town was attacked. She has not been able to go to school since she arrived in Turkey but is currently attending a Child Friendly Space supported by Save the Children where she has the opportunity to keep learning and meet new friends. *Name changed for protection

The Government of Turkey took a courageous step in 2014 and passed legislation that would bring these informally operating schools under the coordination of the Ministry of National Education. Currently 18,122 Syrian children are enrolled in 69 Temporary Education Centres (TECs) across Hatay province alone. The government of Turkey has shown unprecedented levels of generosity and hospitality – spending up to 8 billion dollars – on refugees from Syria and Iraq. Yet, this is only a small fraction of the overall need. Globally, education and child protection are the two sectors that receive the least amount of aid funding. Partners such as UNICEF and international NGOs like Save the Children are working to help bridge that gap.

But it is not as simple as throwing money at the problem. Meaningful understanding of the actual needs of refugee and host communities coupled with projects designed to address these needs are required. To this effect, we carried out a needs assessment of every Temporary Education Centre in Hatay and revealed a thorough yet stark picture of the varying challenges – from transport to textbooks – faced when trying to provide education to Syrian children.

As the crisis has deepened, the needs of refugees has evolved. It is no longer a matter of providing basic humanitarian relief but enabling refugees to live with dignity and, most importantly, hope for a better future.

I have visited several Temporary Education Centres in Hatay as part of our work. At one TEC, a soft spoken head teacher from Aleppo thanked me for the assistance Save the Children in Turkey was providing. This man is so dedicated that he works six days a week, up to 12 hours a day and has gotten into personal debt so that running water and electricity of the TEC would not be cut off. I could not help myself, I listened to his words of gratitude and told him: "No; thank you. "Without you, these children would not have been getting an education for the past three years. I am sorry the international community has been so slow to come to your aid."

"Better late than never," he replied.

To learn more about our response to the Syria crisis, click here.

The Time is Now: Delivering on the SDG Agenda

 

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There’s no way around feelings of euphoria today.

 

World Leaders at the United Nations are ringing in a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that promise to end extreme poverty and the scourge of hunger and preventable deaths of infants and children around the world.

 

At the same time, the Pope is calling for solidarity with the most deprived and those displaced by conflict and climate change.

 

Over the coming days, millions of people globally – from youth in Ghana to Shakira — are taking part in the “world’s largest” prayers, lessons, and ceremonies to light the way for the SDGs. It’s one of those rare moments in which governments, faith institutions, everyday citizens and popular idols unite around a common cause to forge a historic moment.

 

Three years of debate among UN diplomats and millions of citizens voicing their priorities has culminated in the approval today by 193 nations of new Sustainable Development Goals, to replace the Millennium Development Goals established in 2000. Negotiations on the SDG agenda have been among the most collaborative in UN history. It is truly a global vision for a better world.

 

Furthermore, the SDGs comprise a holistic agenda – 17 goals rather than 8 – with ending extreme poverty at its core supported by a healthy planet in a peaceful world.

 

The goals are bold and ambitious. The trick will be maintaining the momentum once the speeches end, the crowds disperse, and the cameras turn their focus elsewhere.

 

It will take a collective effort to achieve this, but the most defining players will be governments who will bring political will and resources to deliver a better future for their people.

 

Here are six actions that all governments can take to make the SDGs real for their countries:

 

1) Create national action plans to implement the SDGs. Each government should take the SDGs back home, consult widely with local actors, and make policy and programmatic decisions to put the goals into practice in their country. The entire SDG agenda of 17 goals and 169 targets may not be applicable to every country but there are a core set – namely, the “unfinished business of the MDGs”– like health, education and poverty, which do apply to every country and can be acted upon starting today.

 

2) Commit financing to the SDGs. Countries should align their budgets to achieve these outcomes. For the United States, this may mean more investments to reduce deaths caused by obesity, heart disease, or automobile accidents, while for poor countries global health dollars could be invested in community health workers to reduce deaths associated with childbirth and malnutrition.

 

3) Assign a high-level government lead on the SDGs. To ensure rigorous monitoring and accountability, it is important to put in place a focal point on the SDGs who can reach across ministries and carry political weight to ensure action and coordination.

 

4) Communicate a clear commitment to the SDGs. Heads of state can take these goals home and share them with Parliament or Congress and speak to citizens, private companies, and others to contribute financing, technical know-how, and new ideas and innovations to deliver on the SDGs. Citizens should also play a role holding governments’ “feet to the fire” to be accountable for achieving this agenda over the next 15 years.

 

5) Prioritize action to “leave no one behind.” Many times on large agendas such as this one, people try to attain the easy solutions and quick wins. This time, however, the world pledged to achieve progress for the poorest and most vulnerable groups first. This requires investments in gathering and disaggregating data to ensure that all groups benefit from progress and no one is being “left behind,” such as girls living in poverty.

 

6) Publish an annual whole of government report on the SDGs and participate fully in the global follow up and review process. Every country should create progress reports on the SDGs and encourage citizen participation to leverage all resources and people-power in fulfilling the 2030 agenda. This will demand that we work together to strengthen our systems for evaluation and learning in order to scale projects that work and end those that don’t.

 

With the new SDGs, we can build a world in which no child lives in poverty, and where each child has a fair start and is healthy, educated, and safe. But progress toward meeting these goals in each country will depend on more government investment, open and transparent country institutions, participation by a diverse cross-section of civil society, and effective partnerships between government, civil society, private sector, and donors.

 

In 2030 we will judge success by what has been delivered, rather than by our declarations today. Let’s use this historic moment to pave the way for concrete action for children around the world.

How Save the Children Can #UpgradeYourWorld

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Phan Thi Thu Huong

Sponsorship Manager

Save the Children Vietnam

September 25, 2015

 

Nothing compares to seeing the impact a supportive learning environment can have on a child.

When I first started working for Save the Children a few years ago, I was introduced to a girl attending a primary school in Lao Cai Province in northern Vietnam who was so tremendously shy and, as an ethnic minority, did not know the national language – Vietnamese.

The girl, named Ly, was just starting first grade at the Save the Children supported school, and it was her first time stepping into a classroom. She had not been given the opportunity to attend preschool or kindergarten, having instead joined her mother in the field as her mother tended to the family’s rice and corn fields. 

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Save the Children Vietnam staff members, from left: Tran Thi Hoai Thu, Pham Thu Trang and Phan Thi Thu Huong, with students at a Save the Children-supported preschool in Lao Cai Province in northern Vietnam. Photo by Jeremy Soulliere.

Ly felt isolated in the classroom, initially unable to communicate with her classmates and teacher. When I approached her, she said nothing and just stared at me, visibly anxious about how she fit in.

Fast forward two years, and I had the opportunity to meet Ly once again during a visit at the school.

I didn’t have to look for her though. She ran up to me and greeted me in Vietnamese, excited to tell me about everything she had learned. She was no longer disconnected and disengaged with her classmates and teacher, and it shocked me how much she had changed.

In the two years I had not seen Ly, she had been given the fundamental educational tools to thrive at school and in life. At Save the Children, this is what we strive for with every child, and we are working hard to ensure kids have a much earlier start on their education than Ly — as 90 percent of a child’s brain development occurs before they reach kindergarten age.

All children deserve a strong start, but too many children around the world aren’t getting this chance.

Here in northern Vietnam, where I help to oversee early learning and education programs at 23 primary schools and 20 preschools, Save the Children is helping improve the quality of teaching by training teachers on bilingual education techniques and interactive learning methods. We’re also working to increase children’s access to preschool and primary education, and strengthening the support for early learning through parents and community leaders.

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Students play at a Save the Children-supported preschool in Lao Cai Province in northern Vietnam. Photo by Jeremy Soulliere.

Recently, Save the Children was honored to be recognized by Microsoft – through its #UpgradeYourWorld movement — as a global nonprofit that’s empowering and inspiring others. By featuring Save the Children’s early learning efforts throughout September, Microsoft is helping spread the word about the importance of investing in children all over the world.

I have seen first-hand how Save the Children’s collaboration with a school and a community has helped “upgrade” the future possibilities for Ly, and am excited to help be a part of upgrading the possibilities of many more bright children like her. 

The First Day of School…in Cuba!

The first day of school is an exciting moment of possibility and potential—and the same could be said for my very first trip to Cuba.

 

Everywhere I went, there was an expectant and hopeful feeling in the air. I spoke with young Cubans who expressed their enthusiasm about greater interaction with the world, including the United States, as an opportunity to broaden their horizons and pursue their dreams.

 

CarolynCuba copyI was in Cuba for the country’s first day of school and was lucky enough to visit with kindergarten students in Havana, many of whom were beginning their formal education for the very first time. It was refreshing to see their excitement and hear them talk about what they’re looking forward to learning this year. As part of the visit, we visited an after-school arts program that started in one school and has scaled up to many, and spoke with officials at the Department of Civil Defense about their plan to help schools and students better prepare for disasters. We also celebrated the completion of a 5-year program led by Save the Children Spain in partnership with the Cuban government to increase participation and quality education for 36,000 children in 92 schools, leading to better outcomes for children.

 

But we know that for children to realize these outcomes in school, they must get the healthy start they deserve. So we visited one of the premier pediatric hospitals in Havana and met the dedicated staff who are making impressive advances, despite the lack of supplies, technology, furniture and enough skilled staff. What this facility lacks in materials they make up for in determination for the children under their care—a sense of compassionate duty that echoes what we saw last summer, when a team of Cuban doctors traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to help treat those suffering from the Ebola epidemic.

 

One particular child really stuck with me as I traveled back to the U.S. and recounted my trip. She was a kindergartener named Rena, shy at first but then warming as we placed with clay and made little blue snakes. Though my Spanish and her English were too basic for us to talk much, I saw in her eyes the shining future that Cuba could have, one in which children have a prosing number of opportunities to be all they can.

 

So much about my trip felt like the first day of kindergarten: a different, interesting place; new faces who I hope will become new friends; and so much potential to grow and learn. I hope that Save the Children will be able to continue to get to know Cuba, and find out how we can sharpen our pencils and work together to improve the lives of children and families.

No Limits for Preschoolers’ Futures

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 2.41.06 PM    Jeremy Soulliere

    Media & Communications Manager

    Save the Children US

                                    September 11, 2015

In a remote village in northern Vietnam, a young mother named Hang tells me her hopes for her 5-year-old daughter Mai’s future inside her family’s home. Above our heads, hundreds of corn cobs hang to dry – the product of the family’s daily hard work in the terraced agricultural fields surrounding their mountainous hometown in Lao Cai Province.

Ms. Kim and Mai 2

Preschool teacher Sung Thi Kim reads to one of her students, Mai, at Mai’s home in a remote farming village in northern Vietnam. Photo by Jeremy Soulliere / Save the Children.

For Mai, her mother wants a future where her daughter has the ability to decide her own path without a ceiling. A path where she may choose to stay in her home village and farm, or where she may go to college in the city and pursue a professional career.

The key for Mai to one day make such a decision is for her to get an early start on learning. And with the help of her preschool teacher, Sung Thi Kim, Mai is getting that chance in a community where nearly 50 percent of the villagers live under the poverty line, nearly 20 percent are illiterate, and many – including Hang – did not get the chance to be educated beyond primary school.

 Ms. Kim, who works at a Save the Children-supported preschool, is the community change maker we are highlighting this month as part of Save the Children’s #UpgradeYourWorld initiative with Microsoft and Windows 10.  You can watch a short video about her here, and read more about Upgrade Your World here.

Save the Children is collaborating with Ms. Kim and her colleagues to develop lesson plans, create learning materials, sharpen their teaching skills and increase support for early learning among parents and the community.

Ms. Kim, 29, told me she is inspired daily watching the children smile, play and learn, and thrives off teaching the kids fundamental skills that will help them succeed in school and in life.

Vietnam has 54 different minority languages, 27 of which do not have a written form, and as an ethnic minority, Ms. Kim understands the language barrier that some of her children have coming into her classroom.

She said she uses her native tongue, Nung, to help children learn Vietnamese, and asks children familiar with Vietnamese and other ethnic languages of the area to help translate for children who do not yet know Vietnamese.

She told me she hopes her students grow up to have rewarding professions and come back and contribute to their home village in some way.

Mai and Mother 2

Mai, a student at a Save the Children-supported preschool in northern Vietnam, sits with her mother Hang and removes kernels from corn her family has harvested. Photo by Jeremy Soulliere / Save the Children.

For Mai — whose native language, like her teacher, is Nung – her family has seen her transform since she’s gone to preschool. Once a shy girl who did not play with her siblings, she now actively interacts with them and is more independent at home, something the family credits to Ms. Kim and the preschool environment.

Mai is a long way from deciding what path in life she wants to take, but with the help of Ms. Kim, she has that early start on learning that will help ensure that decision will have no limit.