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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.

Sienna Whittington is the 2020 Gila River Indian Community Champion

Sienna Whittington

Sienna Whittington has been selected as the 2020 First Things First Gila River Indian Community 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.

Whittington has worked with the Growing Readers & Developing Leaders Project helping to develop children’s books using Gila River Indian Community’s O’otham language. The books are not just for young children, but for everyone who is looking to learn more about the Community. Each book has been written by a Community member and has topics that are a direct representation of Gila River Indian Community. This project has garnered much success and is fully supported by Governor Stephen R. Lewis and Lieutenant Governor Robert Stone.

She also helped initiate a demonstration preschool classroom at Blackwater Community Schools, where young children were able to learn language, literally, and communication skills. The young children were also able to learn about their traditional O’otham language and culture.

Whittington, along with Tribal Education Department, Head Start, Early Education Child Care Center and FTF helped initiate the Early Childhood Coalition. This coalition is currently working on collaboration efforts to share professional development opportunities and best practices for young children in the Community.

We recently caught up with Whittington, who is the Education Manager for Gila River Indian Community Tribal Education.

Question: Why do you feel early childhood development and health is important?
: Early childhood development and education are key elements for the future health and well-being of our Community children. Our children are amazing learners. It is vital they are provided quality early education, services and positive experiences to foster their cognitive and social development during the earliest moments and most impactful period of their young life. We want to ensure we focus on supporting the whole child to ensure success in academics, health, well-being and resiliency.

Question: How do you suggest other people in your community get involved?
: I want to invite the Community to recognize their influence on the children in their life and in their families and the experiences they share together within the first 2000 days, the very beginning of a person’s first five years of life. There are only 2000 days between when a baby is born and when a student will begin kindergarten. The importance of this period of growth and extreme sensitivity to both positive and negative experiences is captured in a vast body of current research related to early childhood development. The evidence is clear: reliable, responsive relationships and safe, supportive environments facilitate positive neurological, psychosocial and physiological development at this critical time.

Simply, I want to continue sharing the Growing Readers and Developing Leaders program with families, providing culturally relevant books and encouraging Community members to participate. I want them to know the more words you speak, sing or read to your baby, the faster they will learn to talk and read. A baby’s brain grows super-fast. Research shows the number of loving words a baby hears in the first three years of life makes a big difference. Our little ones are our children and the future of the Gila River Indian Community.  

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