WATERVILLE — Ensuring a child’s brain develops so that he can succeed in school and life requires more than involvement by parents and teachers — it also requires support from an entire community.

That was the message Mayor Karen Heck and officials from organizations including the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, Waterville Rotary Club and United Way of Mid-Maine Inc. touted Thursday at the unveiling of a special interactive learning program for children on the North Street walking trail.

The Born Learning Trail, sponsored by the local Rotary club, features 10 stations that encourage children to interact with a parent or caregiver and helps enhance language, literary and motor skills, as well as school readiness. The trail program also encourages children to engage in games that prompt physical activity such as hopping, wiggling, shaking and tossing a rock.

“The Born Learning Trail is part of United Way’s national public engagement campaign designed to provide families with information about how to turn everyday activities, from running errands to doing laundry, into learning opportunities for young children,” said Tina Chapman, community services committee chairman for the local Rotary club and former president and chief executive officer of the local United Way. “The campaign is built on the idea that children are born learning and that even the smallest interactions with parents, grandparents and caregivers can encourage their development and school readiness.”

Most of a child’s brain development occurs from birth to age five, and Chapman said the program takes that into account.

“In order to build a strong foundation for future academic and vocational success, we need to do all we can to foster brain development in the earliest stages of a child’s life,” she said.

Adults must help to engage children’s minds early, according to Heck, who has been promoting Project 2020, an effort to ensure that all children in the community are reading at grade level by the third grade.

“We’re at 75 percent of that now and the goal is to get it to 100 percent,” she said.

The Rotary, Chamber, Literacy Volunteers, Kennebec Valley Community Action Program and others are working to help make that happen, according to Heck. Representatives from Literacy Volunteers and KVCAP were on hand for Thursday’s event, as was Carter Friend of the John T. Gorman Foundation, which funded an $85,000 planning grant for Project 2020.

Heck said a child’s development is interrupted when he or she experiences toxic stress, which can include violence in the home, and such interruption causes a child to fall behind in school and in personal development, which requires remediation.

She stressed that consistent attendance in school is important to a child’s success in not only academics, but also throughout life. One of the efforts officials are working on as part of Project 2020 is calling attention to the attendance issue, she said.

Lindlof noted that fliers are being given to parents and others that contain information about attendance in an effort to cut absenteeism, especially in the primary grades.

“We have 30 percent of children in grades one through three who miss more than 11 days a year, which is really a huge drawback to them and keeping up with their peers,” Lindlof said.

The chamber partnered with the Albert S. Hall School, where in the school year 2013-14, one student achieved perfect attendance, she said.

Lindlof said she handed out monthly attendance certificates to students at school assemblies. Businesses were asked to donate prizes and they did, with items including toys, food and pool passes and even a Kindle.

“How did we do?” Lindlof asked. “In 2014, in June, when we presented those prizes, we gave away eight, so we moved from one perfect attendance to eight and we’re not stopping there.”

Heck read aloud a mayoral proclamation at the City Council meeting on Tuesday, proclaiming September Attendance Awareness Month.

The chamber partnered with Marden’s Surplus & Salvage Store to buy more than 2,500 children’s books which were donated to Kringleville, Santa’s mini-village which opens downtown during the holiday season. Santa gave a book to every child who visited him and the leftover books were given to area businesses and nonprofit organizations for placement in their waiting rooms, according to Lindlof.

Chapman, director of development and communications for Kennebec Behavioral Health, said Rotarians created Rhoda Reads, a program that provides training to Rotarians on early childhood development and equips them with Rhoda Reads tool kits. The kits include books appropriate for children up to age five, as well as a stuffed owl named Rhoda, the program mascot, she said.

Rotarians are matched with early childcare providers as part of the program, and they visit the providers regularly and read to the children, Chapman said.

Rotary also has contracted with Maine author Barbara Walsh to write “Rhoda’s Rescue,” a book featuring a children’s book in which Rhoda the owl teaches her fellow woodland creatures about the ideals of Rotary.

“The worldwide release of ‘Rhoda’s Rescue’ will be 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5, at Waterville’s Harvest Festival at Head of Falls,” Chapman said, adding that Walsh and the book’s illustrator will be on hand for a reading and book signing.

Meanwhile, she said people in a community can do a lot of things to help children develop, including a gesture as small as saying “hello” and interacting with a child in a restaurant.

“You look at them and you wave and they do it back,” she said. “They love that ‘serve and return,’ and it really makes things start to connect.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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