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A greater purpose

Published: April 24, 2018

Alumna Denise Smith knew she wanted to do more to help children. The water crisis in her hometown of Flint, Michigan provided the chance to answer the call.

In 2014, construction began on a new oil pipeline bisecting Flint, Michigan. Soon after, residents noticed their water had a strange odor and an odd taste. By the time the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and researchers from Virginia Tech reported dangerous levels of lead in the water in 2015, the damage was already done.

Denise Smith

Denise Smith

“The water crisis dealt Flint’s young people a devastating blow, and it’s far from over,” says alumna Denise Smith, who has spent decades supporting early childhood programs in Flint and Detroit. “For a city of children exposed to lead, it will never be over. Lead is a potent, irreversible neurotoxin with a lifelong, multigenerational impact— there is no safe level of exposure.”

The water in Flint was deemed 19 times more corrosive than Detroit’s water supply, and it caused an outbreak of Legionnaires disease that killed at least 12 people. Almost 90 people fell ill during two waves of the outbreak. Adding insult to injury, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were allegedly banned from testing the water to prove it was the cause of these illnesses.

Unfortunately, this crisis only compounded severe challenges already taking place in the community. The population had fallen below 100,000 as of 2013, a number strikingly noticeable considering it hadn’t been that low since the 1920s. In addition, more than 40 percent of the predominantly African-American population lived in poverty and third-grade literacy was 41.8 percent. Since the water crisis, the literacy rate has continued to decline.

“Without concerted, comprehensive interventions, the poorest children in Flint would suffer disproportionately as a result of the water crisis,” Smith says. “Their neighborhoods would be ill-equipped to deliver the health and education programs needed to recover.”

Local nonprofits, providers, and institutions teamed up to help families that were affected—some with water and other basic necessities, others with wraparound services to help with significant health and education barriers.

One of the partnerships that blossomed to meet these obstacles was between early childhood education programs Educare Flint and Great Expectations—both offshoots of the Flint Early Childhood Collaborative, a partnership of five vital civic organizations. In 2017, Smith was hired as executive director for the Flint Early Childhood Collaborative and Educare Flint.

Educare is a nationally recognized nonprofit providing early childhood programs to financially disadvantaged infants, toddlers, and preschoolers— preparing them academically, socially, and emotionally for kindergarten and beyond. In Flint, the program currently serves 220 children on an annual basis, with plans to grow.

“There is a new, focused effort to build a citywide early childhood education landscape that is cohesive and working toward improved access and quality of providers across Flint,” says Smith. “It will provide outreach to home- and center-based facilities, and participate in local, state, and national policy work.”

Although Smith is relatively new to the Educare model, she is no newbie to working with children. She earned her master’s degree in Human Development from Pacific Oaks, specializing in infants and toddlers. She has held a range of positions in early childhood education and care, as an in-home provider for six children; an administrator for Early Head Start and Head Start programs; and a director of Michigan’s tiered quality rating and improvement system (TQRIS).

“Pacific Oaks introduced me to intricacies of infant toddler work, and the dance between child and provider,” she says. “If children are given the opportunities and experiences like those we’re helping to provide in Flint, they can become their best selves.”

Smith’s goal is to help make programs like Educare Flint and Great Expectations the norm for young people.

“I want to help strengthen the early educational system, work with organizations to provide high-quality teaching practices utilizing data and research, grow professional development opportunities for teachers, and foster intensive family engagement. This will all help to nurture eager children and create lifelong learners.”

Read articles from the Spring 2018 issue of Voices:

A is for access

Journey: 5 steps to a transformation

Jus-tice: A word from Pacific Oaks

Lessons for life

Roundtable Q&A: The new American family

Trending: #FightforJustice

For questions or comments on our news stories or releases, or if you are a reporter who would like to speak with an expert in education, human development, or marriage and family therapy, please contact Johanna Atienza at [email protected] or 626.529.8092.