By Chris Kieffer/Daily Journal
OKOLONA – Maria Golden paused while reading “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to a class of 3- and 4-year olds on Friday morning to ask a question.
She’d just read about the title character eating five oranges and asked Jackson Shaw, 4, to pick out five oranges from cutouts of fruit placed on the floor in front of him.
“One, two, three, four, five,” Jackson counted, as he handed the pieces to his teacher at Hazel Ivy’s Child Care Center Inc. in Okolona.
“Every time we read a book, we have activities for the children to do out of the book,” said Cynthia Smith, director designee at Hazel Ivy’s. “It helps get them excited.”
Jackson is among the beneficiaries of a recent grant program by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The foundation, which has supported Mississippi for more than 40 years, is taking a new approach, tying together more than two dozen grants with
a common purpose – helping young black males in the state.
It announced in June it would award $3.8 million through grants to 26 different community organizations with an overriding goal to eliminate barriers to opportunity for black male children and teenagers.
Grants range from $60,000 to $150,000 over three years, and recipients will collaborate and share ideas.
“We are taking a cohort approach,” said William Buster, director of Mississippi and New Orleans programs for the WKKF. “…This is different in that we are being intentional that we will weave together these organizations so that they will work together and learn together.”
Among the recipients is BabySteps Inc., an Okolona organization that assists parents of children from birth to age 5. The organization will use its funds to provide scholarships to 30 black 3- and 4-year-old boys to attend the three child care centers with whom it partners.
“As school started, I wanted my son to get into a 4-year-old program that would help shape his mind for kindergarten next year,” said Jackson’s mother, Maggie Doss. “…Honestly, without BabySteps and Hazel Ivy’s, I would have been unable to allow Jackson to experience this blessed opportunity.”
Parents of scholarship recipients, like Doss, will commit to join BabySteps, volunteer at their child care centers and attend monthly enrichment meetings. The boys also will meet regularly with male mentors from the community who will take them on excursions in the region.
“The most important part is having the engagement of the positive male mentors,” said BabySteps President Leah Ward. “…When little boys are not given those models, they start emulating whatever they see out there and sometimes those cues are not the greatest ones to pick up on.”
BabySteps also will use its grant money to provide an instructional coach to help the three centers it partners with to improve their educational activities. It will provide cultural opportunities, such as pottery, African drumming, sign language, martial arts and storytelling, among others.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation decided to focus on black males after conversations with educators and parents, Buster said.
“We learned we were losing the battle around how do you best support young men of color in the educational system,” he said. “We felt this was a good way to infuse all of our approaches, from education to young children to racial healing.”
Also among the recipients is a Mississippi State University program designed to make caregivers more aware of how their involvement in academic-related activities is linked to children’s success in school.
WKKF will still provide other grants not connected with this cohort.