A lot of excitement has been generated during the past year, thanks to Colby’s interest in a public/private partnership downtown. The chance to build on what we have and to make it better is energizing.

While the work of strengthening Main Street progresses, the work of developing our human resources by strengthening pathways out of poverty has been progressing, too.

For the past year, several groups of community stakeholders — from individuals to people from schools, the library, social service organizations, city officials and business owners — have been creating strategies to address challenges to achieving academic excellence, good physical and mental health, and moving out of poverty. Regardless of our political leanings, these stakeholders understand that we are less strong when we allow one part of the community to fall behind.

Starting early in a child’s life is critical to overcoming our challenges. It’s why Thomas College President Laurie Lachance and I invited a collection of diverse stakeholders in 2014 to envision a community where 80 percent of our third-graders were reading at grade level by 2020. With a 42 percent poverty rate for children younger than 5 living in Waterville, that seemed like a reasonable goal. With solid reading skills, students are more likely to stay in school and graduate on time, stay out of the juvenile justice system, live healthier lives and earn more money as adults.

As our Project 2020 group came together, you can imagine our surprise at learning that 75 percent of our students already read at grade level, 36 percent more than the statewide average. Needless to say, our goal is now 100 percent by 2020.

We shouldn’t have been surprised. We have an amazing school system in Waterville, one that is underappreciated and not recognized for the excellent system it is. It shouldn’t be a well-kept secret. Good schools are one of the top reasons middle-class families move to an area.

Project 2020 will build on the work of the schools and will engage more members of the community to help. Last September, members of the Rotary and the Mid Maine Chamber of Commerce helped by getting the word out about how important attendance at school is. Children who miss 10 days or more year, even in pre-school, are more likely to fall behind their peers and 50 percent of children who miss two to four days in September go on to miss a month of school. We’ll continue to work to make sure children, no matter what grade, are in school, and we’ll engage others in the effort.

An overlapping group of people created the Waterville Poverty Action Coalition after hearing Dr. Donna Beegle speak here last summer. The work of the Poverty Action Coalition is to help build and strengthen pathways out of poverty for our fellow Waterville residents.

The coalition began the Community Initiative to help people with needs who don’t qualify for other social service help. The city now has 196 Community Investors who agree to receive one weekly email describing a need. The requests vary, and can include help with a car repair so a father can get to work, a veteran needing help with her housing expense while undergoing medical treatment, a single mother moving out of a domestic violence shelter who needs furniture. Each investor decides whether to help, with no pressure to do so. Within the first three months of the Community Investor initiative, 28 Investors provided resources for nine requests that affected 28 different people. People interested in becoming a Community Investor can email [email protected] for more information.

Supporting Project 2020 and the Poverty Action Coalition goals has energized another group of people who are raising awareness of adverse childhood experiences and their impact on adult health. The research is clear that what happens in early childhood can reach far beyond childhood, causing chronic health conditions, substance abuse, early pregnancy, fetal death, mental health issues and even early death. And, while poverty doesn’t cause adverse childhood experiences, they can cause poverty.

It’s important to understand the traumatic effects of adverse childhood experiences and to understand how trauma-informed services can foster resilience and the ability to cope with them. Because adverse childhood experiences play a role in an individual’s physical and mental health, their prevention and their effective treatment are critical components in curbing our soaring chronic disease and mental health costs.

Early childhood experiences set the stage for success in school and for healthy minds and bodies in adulthood. While we are lucky to have state-of-the-art early learning opportunities for children and their parents at Educare in Waterville, not every parent is able to take advantage of them. That’s why business leaders in the Waterville Rotary and the Mid Maine Chamber of Commerce have embraced the opportunity to work on supporting early quality learning throughout the community and why we are working to create pathways out of poverty for parents.

I feel fortunate to live in a village working to create a healthy economy and a healthy citizenry.

Karen Heck is a longtime resident and former mayor of Waterville.


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