March 8, 2006 | By: Carol Lea Spence
Burlington, Ky.

For Boone County residents, the community center is only steps away no matter where they live. That’s not because they live in a small community. It’s because the center comes to them.

The Community Center on Wheels is a joint effort between University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension and other Boone County agencies, including the library, school districts, parks and recreation, and the health department. Many of the partners involved had programs that were underutilized. The mobile center was developed as a means to take resources directly to Boone County families. The agencies are working together under United Way's Success By 6 program in a multipronged approach with startup funding from an Early Learning Opportunities Act Grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

 "We are reaching people who do not know about Extension. It's been a great marketing opportunity as well as exposure for all the partners involved with the Community Center on Wheels," said Katie Smallwood, Boone County Extension agent for family and consumer sciences.

Smallwood can often be found on the traveling center reading to children or speaking with parents about proper nutrition. Because the bus travels to all corners of the county, often she is reaching people who are taking advantage of Cooperative Extension programs for the first time.

The joint effort goes back to 2001 when community leaders reviewed the Kentucky Kids Count data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Dawn Denham, Success By 6 executive director, said that the study showed Boone County, though ranked second in the state overall in county profiles of child well-being, was beginning to show a decline in some areas while other counties were improving.

Other county-wide data indicated that 53 percent of children entering kindergarten tested out of the acceptable range in literacy, 32 percent were at risk for obesity and 9 percent were in need of dental care.

 "When you have a population that grows by 75 percent in 14 years, you're bound to get problems," Denham said. "So as a result of that, a group of people that were basically the directors of many of the public agencies approached United Way and said we want to be a true collaboration. At that time they adopted the United Way Success By 6 model."

Success By 6 takes a different shape wherever it is found. In Boone County, public agencies are partnered with the largest employers in the area to reach children at a young age. It is a far-reaching vision that looks beyond childhood to a future where the entire community benefits.

"We know that if a child falls behind early on, they're going to stay behind their whole lives," Denham said. "If we start in our first years, we know that it makes our economy stronger. We know that it makes our workplaces more successful. It decreases our poverty rates. It increases college graduation and high school graduation."

The goal of the program, she said, is to unite the entire county to make sure that all children are entering school ready to succeed from the perspective of literacy, proper nutrition and appropriate health and dental care, and making sure that they have quality early learning experiences.

Data covering every aspect of early childhood development is collected when children enter school in Boone County’s two school districts. The analyzed data has helped define four major areas of need: nutrition, literacy, quality child care and dental care.

Enter the Boone County Community Center on Wheels. Custom-built, the two-room bus is equipped with a classroom to support on-board instruction, computers for access to educational software and the Internet, and resource materials for children and adults. Because it makes both day and evening rounds to neighborhoods, day care centers and preschools, busy parents have easy access to library materials, story hours, nutritional instruction and dental care.

Onboard the Community Center on Wheels, Smallwood delivers essential nutrition information and resources to the county's neighborhoods and child care centers.

"We do live in a county where there are a lot of parents who both work, so sometimes fast food is the only option at night. So we're really trying to promote family meal time, cooking, eating healthy, getting at least your five a day," she said recently as she bagged cans of fruits and vegetables donated by Boone County Homemakers for the children at Bright Future Preschool, one of the stops that day.

With the support of local agencies such as UK Cooperative Extension, the Community Center on Wheels is making a difference in the lives of Boone County's children. Though it's too early in the process to measure the effects of the program, Denham said she is sure the community will benefit from the Success By 6 approach years from now.

"Ninety percent of a child's brain is developed by the time they're 3 years old," she said. "We have a very short window to make a positive impact on that child's life."

Contact: 

Katie Smallwood, (859) 586-6101