Monday, May 16, 2011

Visit to World Forum

By Joel Ryan, WSA Executive Director

I just returned from the World Forum on Early Education and Care in Honolulu, Hawaii, where we were asked to present on our WSA Parent Ambassadors program. It was a very interesting and enriching experience. On the first day I traveled with Yasmina Vinci, NHSA Executive Director, Joan Lombardi from HHS, and the person who oversees all of the reviews to visit Head Start programs on the island. Initially it was a bit of shock—I knew there were poor families living in Hawaii but I was surprised at the depth of poverty. On one highway we saw families living on the side of the street in tents. As you can imagine, the cost of living is very expensive and the service jobs people are doing don’t pay very much. I heard from several of the Head Start staff I met with that meth use is really high and that Hawaii is a stopping over point for drug runners trying to get to the mainland. I found that the Head Start programs were excellent. We visited one co-located with a transitional housing complex and another one at a huge (like old style Chicago) housing project where a community action agency delivered services. Not surprisingly I found that the Head Start folks in Hawaii are facing the same problems with the child care subsidy system in their state that we are facing here. One program shared some great work they are doing with the CLASS and beyond. They have a very extensive master teacher mentoring program and have seen their CLASS scores move way past the national average as a result. They said they would be interested in doing a webinar with programs in Washington.

I found that while the sessions at the World Forum were interesting, it was much more about the people. One woman I met from Afghanistan was defying the Taliban by starting a school for women and their children. Empowering and educating women in that country is still not acceptable to many elements. She spoke about setting up a school in a refugee camp in Pakistan, where the children were sleeping on the same ground as snakes and scorpions. To illustrate the degree of poverty she told a story about how a father sold one of his children for a few bags of rice. In those schools, the most dangerous job was being the bus driver – the school bus is constantly under threat of bombing or shooting or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The other speaker I found really interesting was a Roman Catholic Priest that lives in Zambia. He focuses his time on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and spoke about the large number of children in Africa that are living with AIDS but not able to access the cocktail drugs. The vast majority of children with AIDS don’t receive help and are basically told to go home and die. One of the points he was making is that while many adults did not receive treatment, children seemed to be last to get any help. He also mentioned that with the recession, foundation support has been leveling off and in some places declining.

There were many good sessions dealing with impact on children living in war torn countries such as the middle east, Sierra Leone, and other dangerous places. Yasmina did a workshop on all the Head Start models around the world which there are many. I did a workshop on our association’s Parent Ambassadors Program. I was teamed up with a speaker from Zimbabwe that spoke about organizing parents in his country—something akin to a policy council. I heard good feedback and there was interest from a Canadian delegation and Fiji to get a program started in their countries. (Yes, I immediately agreed with them that it would make a lot of sense for me to travel with several directors to Fiji to teach them how to get it up and running). The conference was also a lot of fun too. There was an international dance, good discussion groups, and some time to just talk and meet people from all over. I signed our association up to be involved in issues around peace building and advocacy so we can continue to learn and model our work.

When the conference wrapped up I spent a few extra days with my wife and daughter and we had a great time. We ate shaved ice at some well known places, saw sea turtles and dolphin shows, and visited many beautiful beaches. Of course my daughter only wanted to play in the pool. She discovered that the slide was fun and I had to do that with her for about 4 to 5 hours one day which explains the tan and sunburn I have right now. (Katy said she really had a lot of sympathy for me) All in all it was an eye opening trip. I think my biggest take away was simply that the world is a lot smaller than we think. While the level of child poverty is not anywhere near the other countries that were present, there are people all around the world that care about children and their health and development.