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2021 Arizona Champions for Young Children honored

Collage of 8 FTF Champion headshots

First Things First is honoring early childhood champions throughout Arizona who actively volunteer to raise awareness of the importance of early childhood development and health. This year, the FTF Regional Champions for Young Children include a NICU nurse, a pediatrician, a program manager for a youth initiative and 19 others.

The FTF Champions also received recognition from Arizona’s senators. U.S. Sens. Mark Kelly and Kirsten Sinema acknowledged the champions’ dedication to the early childhood community by sending a congratulatory certificate and letter to each Champion. 

These volunteers work to help their community better understand the importance of early childhood in a variety of ways.

“When we as community members teach parents of newborn babies ‘You are your baby’s first teacher, talk to her, sing to her, hold her, read to her and enjoy her.’ We empower them.” – Mary Ann Sawyer

For example, in the FTF Southeast Maricopa Region, Mary Ann Sawyer helps parents with babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) understand the importance of early childhood development and how they can impact healthy development by reading and interacting with their babies.

“Many parents are shocked to learn that 90% of a child’s brain growth happens in the first five years,” Sawyer said. “When we as community members teach parents of newborn babies ‘You are your baby’s first teacher, talk to her, sing to her, hold her, read to her and enjoy her.’ We empower them.”

As a NICU developmental specialist nurse at Banner Children’s at Desert in Mesa and Banner Gateway Medical Center in Gilbert, Sawyer talks with families at bedside, during the Newborn Intensive Care Program at discharge. She also shares early childhood information and FTF materials at the Special Care Nursery Family Support Group. She also shares the FTF website and provides FTF’s digital content on the NICU Facebook page.

“I feel that early childhood development and health both mentally and physically is of utmost importance because it is the foundation for who a child can become later in life,” she said. “In my training as a nurse and as a developmental specialist, I learned that early experience influences later behaviors physically and mentally.”

“We have to involve the family and extended family, faith-based leaders, healthcare providers, teachers, friends, and neighbors to get the community involved. We all have a job to do to bring awareness and positive change.” – Dr. Lindell Collins

In the FTF Phoenix North Region, the 2021 Champion is Dr. Lindell Collins, a pediatrician at McAuley Pediatrics PC, who prescribes parents to read with their child daily to enhance brain development and family closeness. The prescription is paired with an FTF-provided children’s book and bookmark, which offers parents additional early literacy information.

The FTF materials have influenced deeper conversations about the importance of early childhood between her and the parents visiting her office, Dr. Collins said. 

But involvement doesn’t end at the well-child visit. She encourages everyone to get involved.

“I would suggest leaders in our community lead by example,” Collins said. “Join a group that you enjoy that is making positive changes in the community, and share your story about how you have helped children and families. This may motivate others to do the same. As the popular proverb says, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ We have to involve the family and extended family, faith-based leaders, healthcare providers, teachers, friends, and neighbors to get the community involved. We all have a job to do to bring awareness and positive change.”

2021 Champion Hannah Honani in the FTF Coconino Region also reminds community members that everyone has a role and sets an example, whether they realize it or not.

“It is important that we, as parents/guardians, are informed and help create a web of support for our young people in order for them to pursue their idea of success.” – Hannah Honani

“As a counselor, a program coordinator or teacher, we have an impact on our young people’s lives and we must be aware of our intentions in everything we do,” she said. “Our youth are watching. We must be an advocate and not give up hope of our young people’s potential.”

Honani is the Program Manager for Hopi Opportunity Youth Initiative, where she shares about the importance of early childhood and ways FTF provides support to families of young children with over 300 members of the Hopi Tribe.

She has been dedicated to supporting the importance of early childhood through her work in coordinating the distribution of diapers, food, water, and other essential supplies across all of Hopi. While doing so, she has made sure community members receive important messages about early childhood.

“Parents (biological or not) are a child’s first teacher in many ways,” Honani said. “It is important that we, as parents/guardians, are informed and help create a web of support for our young people in order for them to pursue their idea of success. Guidance creates comfort, teaches stability and opportunities that can help define a pathway for a young person to achieve their goals and dreams.”

For more information about all the recently named 2021 Champions across Arizona, visit FTF Region Stories.

Ofelia Gonzalez is a public information officer at First Things First. You can reach her at ogonzalez@firstthingsfirst.org.​

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