A partnership between the early childhood community and communities of faith can seem unexpected, but the important shared work of nurturing the health, learning and well-being of young children shows that it is a natural fit.
As Arizona’s early childhood agency, First Things First works with groups across the state, including members of faith communities, to support high-quality early childhood experiences to help young children be ready for success in kindergarten.
In recognition of the important role that faith communities play, each of the local volunteer regional council partnerships that lead FTF efforts in regions across the state include a representative from the local faith community.
“I don’t think you’ll find a bigger early childhood advocate than the faith community,” said FTF state Board Member Rev. Darren Hawkins.
“Faith communities value early childhood. It’s an important time of formation in life.”
Hawkins is the pastor at Sierra Vista Presbyterian Church in Yuma, but he acknowledges that those involved in the spiritual upbringing of young children can come from many different religions and beliefs across Arizona. They all share a common value in supporting families and shepherding the next generation.
In their daily work, faith-based leaders understand that strong families are the building blocks of strong communities. And that it’s crucial that parents have the tools they need to support children with stable, nurturing environments in their earliest years.
“It’s amazing how many people come to Christian churches when they have young children and when they’re old,” Hawkins said. “Why? They come at the end because they want to be comforted. But they come with their young children because they realize that faith is something important and they want their young children to understand it.”
One definition of the word faith refers to having complete trust or confidence in someone or something. And, in working with babies, toddlers and preschoolers, the belief is that having an impact on their faith when they’re young will build a strong foundation for their future.
“We believe that,” Hawkins said. “That’s who we are as faith people. The church is in it for the long haul, and hopefully, families will see the value so that they stay for the long haul themselves.”
Similarly, the return on investment in quality early childhood programs is seen years later in higher high school graduation rates, less likelihood of incarceration and better health outcomes for those children who participate in high-quality early childhood programs.
“It comes down to preparing these children to be ready for life,” Hawkins said. “It’s about the children first. Those kids are the important thing. How do we best honor and value them?”
For those who would like to share early childhood information with their faith community and parents of babies, toddlers and preschoolers, FTF offers a variety of free resources and opportunities to get involved on our website, FirstThingsFirst.org/take-action.
Sometimes all it takes is a small group of like-minded people to make an impact. For Hawkins’ congregation, it comes in the form of a yearly book drive to benefit a local non-profit called Reach Out and Read, which provides pediatrician offices with books to give to families of young children during their visits.
“We know what happens when parents read to kids,” Hawkins said. “For a lot of kids in Yuma County, the only book they have is the one that the pediatrician gives them. So once a year, during Lent, we collect age-appropriate books and take a special offering to buy books.”
Hawkins sees direct service like this, or volunteering to serve on a local FTF regional council which was how he first became involved with FTF, as examples of faith in action to help our youngest children learn, grow and succeed.
“A small impact over time makes a big impact,” he said. “It’s a matter of mobilizing the faith community to think about where’s one area we can make difference? And be intentional about the work.”