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Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families 

Making the case for better health, education and more.

click to enlarge 'PIXIE': Beloved at Friendship Community Care, which gets ABC dollars.
  • 'PIXIE': Beloved at Friendship Community Care, which gets ABC dollars.

The benefits to people that most nonprofits deliver is easy to grasp: Arkansas Foodbank delivers meals, Our House shelters people getting their lives back on track, The Van takes care of the homeless, the Centers for Youth and Families takes in children to help them with behavioral issues. You can get clothing, escape an abusive home, learn to read, get help kicking a drug habit. So when you write a check to Women and Children First, for example, you know that money will have an immediate, tangible effect on the workings of the shelter.

What might be harder to picture is the work of advocacy groups — organizations that don't deliver services directly but work hard to make sure that their need is known and addressed. These groups could use your charitable dollars, too.

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families has been in business for 40 years, using data-driven campaigns to bring better health, fairer taxation, education and juvenile justice to persuade people in power to act on behalf of the good of the state. Such dollars allow AACF to lobby on behalf of such things as ARKids First, the health care program for children in low-income families that the agency helped bring to fruition.

AACF's philanthropic support comes largely in the form of grants from foundations such as the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, which is working with AACF on its Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, and out-of-state organizations like the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which collects Kids Count data; the Alliance for Early Success, for quality pre-K; and the Kellogg Foundation.

But you can't lobby with grant money, and Rich Huddleston, AACF director, would like to have the spending flexibility that individual gifts provide. "It's an uphill battle" to raise such dollars, he said, because "not everyone gets what advocacy is about." Arkansas Advocates' annual Soup Sunday is its largest fundraiser from individual donors.

Another example of AACF's work, in education: With the Arkansas Early Childhood Association and grass roots support, Arkansas Advocates has pushed for needed funds for Arkansas Better Chance, the pre-K program operated by the state Department of Education since 1990. The ABC budget to prepare low-income 3- and 4-year-olds for kindergarten was a negligible $10 million until 2003; Gov. Mike Hukabee at one point proposed even that sum be cut, by 66 percent. But protests at the Capitol stopped that proposal, and the legislature raised the tax on beer to keep ABC afloat. In 2003, the state Supreme Court's Lakeview decision on equitable school funding increased ABC money by a factor of 10, and AACF and the Invest Early Coalition worked to boost that to $110 million by 2007. In the 10 years since, the state has added only $3 million more, though AACF advocated for a $20 million increase to meet the increase in expenses over time.

AACF "is a huge cheerleader for ABC," said Karla Curry, who runs the nonprofit Friendship Community Care for preschoolers in Bryant. "They have worked so hard to make sure we have quality preschool services." AACF, which offers free training in how to advocate to nonprofits, has helped her agency "make sure we know what is going on so we can be active and let our voice be heard."

So, though a gift to AACF would not go directly to Friendship Community Care, it would relay the needs of the facility and others in the program to those who hold the state's purse strings: the legislature. In the case of Friendship Community Care, those needs are special: Curry's classrooms for 3- to 4-year-olds integrate children who are typical in their development with students with disabilities. "Kids learn really well from their peers," Curry said. "The little children with disabilities learn a lot from typically developing children, and typical children learn to be accepting. They're not scared just because the child is different or is in a wheelchair or has an assistant. They learn we are just as much the same as we are different, and a community spirit is built." That's the kind of spirit in which children thrive and become ready for kindergarten.

Curry talked about "Pixie," a child at the Bryant center who has Rett's syndrome, a genetic and eventually fatal neurological condition that robs a child of the ability to use her muscles in movement and speech and causes seizures. As a 4-year-old, "Pixie" was "a social butterfly," Curry said.

"She loved people, and she was one of the happiest children I've ever seen to be so severely affected," Curry said. "Every child in this building ... could call her by name and they wanted her there. They took care of her, but not as a mother-child relationship. She was their friend. Just to see them embracing her that way ... they wanted her to be included. ...

"I think that's one of the best things about ABC period ... . those children are learning life skills every day that they will use for the rest of their lives."

Debbie Mays operates Bright Beginnings, a Siloam Springs pre-K program funded by ABC, in her home. Mays, who was also just named overall winner of the Southern Early Childhood Family Engagement competition, said Arkansas Advocates has "fought hard for us with the legislators" to increase funding so classrooms can keep staff trained and paid at a rate that encourages them to stay with the program.

Huddleston said AACF is working now to keep ABC funding at a level that quality isn't lost, though he'd like to see it increased enough to expand the number of classrooms. Its popularity in Siloam Springs is clear: There are 27 people on the waiting list for Bright Beginnings' 11 openings.

Geania Dickey, who worked with Arkansas Advocates to get ABC started and who is a consultant in its partnership with the education initiative Forward Arkansas, said that what AACF does really well is "listening to the people they're trying to help. They don't create their own agenda: It's based on hearing from people with needs first-hand."

Dickey also said Arkansas Advocates "will do nothing without solid evidence. I respect that. If I tout Arkansas Advocates' data, I don't worry about it being absolutely accurate."

Arkansas Advocates also serves as a hub of sorts to connect people working in different areas with common concerns. "Because with little kids," Dickey said, "we know education and health go hand in hand, so maybe I'm in a conversation with them and they inform me of another group. They're a conduit of information."

To support the work of Arkansas Advocates, go to the agency's home page, aradvocates.org, where there is a donate tab. The website provides links to its research and issues and the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count data for Arkansas.

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