Now is the perfect moment to call on our community to place young children and their families center stage where they belong.
At the Community Foundation, we work with some of the best donors and partners in the state. Every now and then, new donors show up to remind us why we do our work and give us hope for the future. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Arkansas in March, Cathy and Denton Seilhan stepped up in a big way and gave generously to our COVID-19 Relief Fund. Not only did they give money, but they also brought passion, experience and expertise to a longstanding cause that needs attention in Arkansas: Early Childhood Development.
The Seilhans are transplants to Northwest Arkansas and have lived there for about a year. Like so many who move to Arkansas, they felt warmly welcomed by their community. Cathy shared, “We had been visiting and enjoying the beauty of Arkansas and the warmth and friendliness of Arkansans, and we marveled, really, at the kind and caring people we’ve met.”
Denton Seilhan was in the underwater connector manufacturing world and was a business owner of a medium-sized company in San Diego. When they first met on a dating website, Cathy lived in Texas and Denton lived in California. Cathy was nervous and hesitant to share too much at first (she wouldn’t tell him her last name and didn’t give him her cell number for six weeks!) but after lots of emails back and forth, something shifted for her. Trust and friendship quickly blossomed, and he proposed soon after. Ten years later they share five children and seven grandchildren.
“We have different perspectives on politics and some other things, but those differences have actually helped us grow and learn more,” said Cathy.
One of her passions is working with children. An educator for 30 years, she focused on early childhood development as well as language and literacy development. When asked what prompted her passion for helping children she explained, “Denton and I began looking at ways to support the children in our community through charitable giving in about 2015. When we moved to Arkansas, we began learning about all of the organizations here in the state that provide help to families in need, and we saw that there exists here in Arkansas a living network of concern that can be harnessed to create rapid and far-reaching innovative changes in the lives of families facing adversity.
“We need to treat our youngest children as what they are – our most important asset. You can’t talk about successfully opening the state or being ‘back to normal’ unless you talk about childcare in the context of the science of child development,” said Cathy. “This time – as a society – as members of a vast network of overlapping communities within Arkansas, let’s focus on the specific needs of our citizens who are 0 to 5 years of age. “
We agree with Cathy’s assessment. There are strong correlations between economic stressors and what are knowns as ACEs – Adverse Childhood Experiences. These are experiences which create an environment of ongoing stress – known as chronic or toxic stress.
According to the Arkansas Department of Health, children who experience adversity in the first years of life are more at-risk for negative social, emotional, educational, behavioral, cognitive and health outcomes throughout their lives. Childhood adversity has many faces, including:
- Toxic Stress
- Fractured families, including divorced and/or incarcerated parents
- Living with a caregiver who abuses alcohol and/or illegal substances
- Lack of a nurturing home environment; including parental depression
- Harsh parenting practices, including abuse, neglect and maltreatment
- Poor educational opportunities, attainment, and expectations
- Lack of access to critical preventative health care services
The average household earnings in the state of Arkansas in 2020 was nearly equal to the federal poverty rate, just above $26,000 for a family of four. This means the average family in our state was in a precarious financial situation even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The nature of this emergency is such that many people have lost and are losing their employment – further compounding the economic impact of the COVID-19 health crisis.
“I know firsthand, both from my experiences as an educator and as a mother who was a single parent for about seven years, that lack of economic security greatly impacts the health and well-being of the parent or caregiver – often leading to outcomes such as parental depression, which is in itself another ACE,” said Cathy. “Once the child experiences one area of adversity, they often begin experiencing a second, and so they compound like this, often leading to multiple ACEs.
“For a young child, the way the brain works is that we look around our environment and ask, ‘Am I safe here?’ and if the answer is ‘No,’ and things are unstable and chaotic, the brain and nervous system go into constant alert. The effects of this impact can be profound. In a classroom, these kids are likely to have challenges with their attention and may have difficulty listening, following directions, and calming themselves down or otherwise regulating their own behavior when upset or frustrated,” she said.
“When left unsupported, these children are at greater risk of having difficulty with all academic endeavors and have far greater challenges going all the way through school. It is more difficult for them, as adults, to participate in the economy in a robust way as wage earners, thus perpetuating the conditions of adversity for their own children.”
Research shows that the longer we wait to intervene in the lives of children at high risk, the more difficult it will be to achieve positive outcomes later in life. Programs and policies that increase family resilience and human connection are powerful players in the health of children and society.
When asked how we can turn this moment into action at a higher level, Cathy is quick to respond, “I truly believe that it is by collaborating very broadly in our communities and across the state and country that we can help our children by helping support the child’s family. I would love to see us, as a state, conduct active forums to discuss, translate and apply new knowledge from the science of human development and ACEs. We need long-term but quickly shared research and to test targeted interventions to help heal trauma inflicted by Adverse Childhood Experiences. And I believe it calls for vast collaboration in our schools, throughout our health care settings, throughout the judicial system, in our places of faith and most importantly in our homes.” Again, we agree. The time for action is right now, the place to create rapid and transformative change is right here and the agents that create change are us…all of us.