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Region Stories

These stories illustrate how early childhood programs and services funded by First Things First make a difference for young children and families in communities across Arizona.

Mary Ann Sawyer is the 2021 Southeast Maricopa Champion for Young Children

Mary Ann Sawyer has been selected as the 2021 First Things First Southeast Maricopa Champion for Young Children.

The award is given to local champions who actively volunteer their time to raise public awareness of the importance of early childhood development and health. Champions spend a significant amount of time volunteering with FTF and building public awareness about the importance of early childhood issues.

Sawyer is a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) developmental specialist nurse at Banner Children’s at Desert in Mesa and Banner Gateway Medical Center in Gilbert, where she helps parents with babies in the NICU understand the importance of early childhood development and health and engaging with their babies by reading and interacting with them.

She talks with families at bedside, during the Newborn Intensive Care Program at discharge and the Special Care Nursery Family Support Group, where she shares about the importance of early childhood, along with FTF materials. She also shares the FTF website and provides FTF’s digital content on the NICU Facebook page.

Sawyer also shares information about FTF-funded programs and  shares information with other medical staff endorsing First Things First as a valuable community partner. She provided FTF bookmarks to her team at a presentation about soothing and comforting babies with books and music. She also shared with her colleagues at a staff meeting about FTF and the FTF Parent Kit.

Sawyer helps organize an annual NICU Reunion event for graduated NICU families. The event brings together community partners to provide free early childhood education resources. Last year, a drive-thru socially-distanced parade was organized so that families would still receive information.

We recently caught up with Sawyer.

Question: Why do you feel early childhood development and health is important?

Answer: 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. In my training as a nurse and as a developmental specialist, I learned that early experience influences later behaviors physically and mentally. Many parents are shocked to learn that 90% of a child’s brain growth happens in the first five years. 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. Teaching parents about milestones and growth is so important. We are helping parents see their important role too. Families thrive and so do our communities. My parents weren’t in the medical field, but they subscribed to this belief as well. Early childhood development and health are of utmost importance for the future of families and our communities.

Question: How do you suggest other people in your community get involved?

Answer: I suggest we try to put ourselves in new parents’ shoes. I also suggest people look for opportunities to volunteer their time or give resources. When the pandemic is over, I look forward to having volunteers back in the NICU who give of their time. Together we can do so much when we put a little together to help each other.

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