This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Courier Journal on December 9, 2016.

kathy-cooter-photoJoin us at the Morning Meeting – a kindergarten ritual across classrooms in this state and country. At the start of each day, little ones are sitting on a colorful rug “criss-cross applesauce” style around their teacher sharing the calendar, reciting the days of the week, and discussing the weather. Children are then asked to volunteer their own personal good news for the day. I am fortunate to be an active part of many morning meetings in Kentucky kindergarten and preschool classrooms in my role as a university professor preparing new teachers.

One day as the kindergarten teacher was busily working with a small group, I was invited to lead the Morning Meeting for the class of youngsters from a low income, minority-majority neighborhood in Louisville. These children had gotten to know me from previous visits and were quite comfortable with me in this co-teaching role.

“Doc, Doc!!!!   I have news!!!”  Treyvon called out while waving his hand wildly in the air to be called upon.

“Hey Treyvon, my sweet buddy, tell us your news,” I responded.

Proudly he stands, puffs out his chest, and says, “My mom got out of rehab last night!”

A little startled, I attempted to draw on Fred Rogers’ spirit to respond. I said, “Treyvon, your mom must have been so happy and proud to see how much you have grown and learned in school.” The little guy beamed. (Thanks, Mr. Rogers.)

We should hate the reality that we must even consider that little 5-year-olds even know about rehab, but we should appreciate that Treyvon’s grandparents are struggling to raise him and support them for doing so. We should fear what the future holds for all the Treyvons, who live with struggling grandparents or in distressed homes while family members battle poverty, addictions, homelessness, constant financial stress, and so many other serious life difficulties.

The world of Treyvon is so unlike what we want to believe about most children’s lives. Yet he is but one of so many in this state; about 1 in 4 of Kentucky kids live in poverty circumstances and have stories much like his.

This story took place a few years ago, and since then I have had the opportunity to share Treyvon’s voice with parents, school leaders, and other citizens across this state in both urban and rural areas. I have also heard other little voices…

  • The little guy in Berea who told his kindergarten teacher that no adult came home last night.
  • The tiny sleepy girl named Misty in Lexington who told her kindergarten teacher that the police lights and sirens kept her up last night.
  • The small child who told his teacher in Murray that sleeping in a car is not so bad.
  • A baby banging the table with his spoon at his one-year-old birthday party held at a Louisville family homeless shelter.

The little voices related here are but whispers. The realities of some of our youngest and most vulnerable children who live in this state are actually closer to screams – ugly, unimaginable, and unacceptable.

And what of the future of the little Treyvons and Mistys? How will they do in school? How will the state of their health and housing affect their daily lives? These little kids did not choose their circumstances; we cannot, as caring adults, allow them to suffer the life long consequences of poverty without action.

KIDS COUNT offers Kentucky data about the lives of our kids. It is well-researched, factual and, frankly, pretty grim. We are offered a non-partisan and clear picture on which to base action on the behalf of our smallest citizens.

Clearly, as KIDS COUNT illustrates, helping children in poverty to have opportunities for fulfilling and productive lives in Kentucky will take a multifaceted collaborative family, school and community effort supported by legislation and policy. Our vulnerable kids need quality affordable care BEFORE they get to school. Grandparents like Treyvon’s, offering Kinship Care as an alternative to foster care, need financial assistance. Our children of poverty, particularly those of color, will require extra academic and summer learning supports to gain and maintain grade level skills.

The innocence of the little faces and the enormity of their life challenges should haunt us.

Let’s listen to the voices.

Kathy Cooter is a professor of Early Childhood/Special Education at Bellarmine University and a board member of Kentucky Youth Advocates. Read the Kentucky KIDS COUNT 2016 County Data Book here.