I had three really good friends – actually best friends – when I was in grade school. From kindergarten through 8th grade I spent part of almost every day with one or more of these friends. Two of them are now deceased. One of them died ten years ago and the second died on May 30, 2013 - 3 days before the "Building Power for Babies" kick-off event for the Children's Cabinet's Prenatal to Three initiative.
These two friends were in the back of my mind as I sat waiting for the conference to begin, but they rose to a conscious presence when Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius paraphrased the Institute of Medicine's definition of public health in her opening remarks: "Adults create the conditions in which children can be successful."
That statement made me think of all the adults in my life who have influenced my development. Certainly, my parents and grandparents first came to mind. But it was the other adults that I really focused on - particularly the fathers of my two deceased friends.
My friend who died 10 years ago was a victim of tobacco use that he learned from his father and grandfather. A massive dose of Agent Orange while in Vietnam certainly didn't help. His father was a very good, hard-working man. Actually, he probably worked too hard because he never had time to get involved in community affairs or his kid's affairs. That's why, even though he lived next door, I never really got to know my friend's father.
The friend who died three days before this event also learned a lot from his father, but what he learned was not destructive but life affirming. Because he was actively involved with his community and his son’s activities, I got to know this friend’s father very well. I also learned a lot from him. He taught me how to umpire and referee. He taught me the importance of volunteering and giving to one's community. He taught me the value of a sense of humor. He taught me how to take risks - ones that helped me grow. He taught me and a lot of other kids. He was a great father figure to all of us kids in the community. He was a tool-giver who helped fill-up kids' life skills toolbox.
My recently deceased friend obviously learned some great life lessons from his father because he also gave back to his community. He was a teacher, he was a champion of girls athletics, he was a leader/servant in his church, he was an inspiration to an untold number of kids (including my younger siblings whom he taught), and he was a positive force in his community. Like his father, he made a difference in the lives of many.
I had considered skipping this meeting to attend my friend’s funeral in Green Bay, but as I stepped to the podium for my remarks I knew that Mike Dymond, my friend, would have concurred with my decision to stay in Minnesota to be part of the effort to build the public will to effectively meet the needs of infants, toddlers, and their families.
As I began my talk at the exact time that my friend's funeral began, I could hear his voice along with his father's voice and those of my parents and other influential adults guiding me. I tried to channel their voices by pointing out that what a child needs for a good start in life includes:
- the active engagement of parents, grandparents, and other adults in that child's life;
- the wisdom of a community of people committed to the health and welfare of all kids, not just their own; and
- an investment of time and resources by adults with an optimistic, hope-filled, pay-it-forward approach to life that says "nurture a child even though you won’t be there to see what he or she does in life."
At the same time, I also heard the voices of my education, training, and experiences reminding me that it also takes policies, systems, and environments that prioritize children and create the context for adults to create the conditions in which children can be healthy and successful.
Since it's difficult for children to speak for themselves, they need advocates to make the case that, if we want children to succeed, we need policies that:
- rebalance our investment in treatment and prevention because children lose when almost all of our health care resources go into treatment;
- effectively integrate clinical care, public health, social service, and education because children need this broad array of services;
- focus on upstream needs like preconception activities, prenatal to 3, and prevention of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) knowing that early intervention provides the biggest benefit to children and society;
- look beyond short-term return on investment (ROI) because the return on our investment in children will be realized in a 10 – 90 year perspective; and
- address disparities and equity because the current population of children is more diverse than ever and exquisitely sensitive to the social determinants of health that create inequities in all outcomes.
I ended my talk by reminding the audience that the greatest need is for people like them who are committed and energized to advocate for children, both as a caring adult willing to engage on a personal level with children and as part of a team to build power for children in the policy arena.
As I walked away from the podium, I thought I heard Mike whisper, "This is where you needed to be."