Chris Robinson is certain little things stack up to bigger things.
He pinpoints an early memory: He was 4, ready to graduate from preschool, when “Miss Rouse,” his teacher, had to tie everybody’s shoes before recess could begin. The next day, they all learned to do it themselves, using wooden shoe puzzles.
By kindergarten, “My teacher had to tie everybody’s shoes, except mine,” said Robinson, 27.
He’d not only mastered the bunny ears, but he could tie them the traditional way, too – all because the folks at Happy Face Pre-school, a Raleigh facility owned by his aunt and cousin, insisted laurels aren’t a place to rest, but a place to launch toward learning, knowing and doing even more.
“Of course, I didn’t think anything of it, then, but in retrospect, I know it’s because of the small things Happy Face instilled in me, I have the mindset I have today,” Robinson said.
Robinson’s story is a credit to Wake County SmartStart, the local arm of the statewide, public-private partnership established in 1993 by former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. to help all North Carolina children enter school healthy and ready to succeed.
This month, Wake County SmartStart celebrates its 20th anniversary of ensuring children’s success by supporting families through home visitation and parent education programs, improving the quality of child care, and providing inclusive learning opportunities for children.
The organization kicked off its anniversary April 1 with a garden party that honored Hunt and a Bright Futures Forum April 5 on the state of young children.
The party continues with a family celebration from 9 to 11 a.m. April 22. A Storybook Gala from 6:30 to 9 p.m. April 27 will spotlight books, stories and educators who “ignite imaginations.”
“Our work is centered in the belief that every child has tremendous potential, but not all children have opportunity,” said Pam Dowdy, Wake County SmartStart’s executive director. “For 20 years, we have been advocating for each child, in every community – working to ensure they grow up ready to have careers, raise healthy families and be contributing members of our society.
“There is no greater joy than knowing that we can make a difference, and that we do.”
Robinson believes he’s proof.
After graduating from Southeast Raleigh High School, Robinson earned a degree in finance from N.C. A&T State University – and went straight to work with the Obama administration in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.
As an assistant to U.S. Secretaries of Education Arne Duncan and John B. King Jr., Robinson worked to ensure early childhood education is available and accessible to all students “no matter their ZIP code.”
“You don’t want to play catch-up with kids,” he said. “That’s not fair.”
As the work continues in Wake, it’s important we don’t misunderstand where we stand and why SmartStart is still necessary.
Despite a robust community, 17 percent of Wake’s 76,000 children from birth to age 5 live in poverty, a persistent obstacle to access and success. Also, nearly 70 percent of the county’s family households with young children have a sole parent or both parents working, leaving one in four children in preschool to rely on SmartStart vouchers.
Kimberly Shaw knows prevention is the better approach.
She’s the first African-American child care provider to receive accreditation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children for her two centers, A Safe Place Child Enrichment Center on Cross Link Road and Clarendon Crescent.
There, children learn healthy eating habits through SmartStart’s Farm to Childcare and Preventing Obesity by Design programs.
“It covers every learning domain,” Shaw said. “We had SmartStart to teach us more and help us be successful in the process.”