SmartBabies Initiative: Working Together for our Youngest Wacoans

By Ashley Weaver, Director of the SmartBabies Initiative, Waco Foundation

In McLennan County, approximately 45% of women have their first child at age 21 or younger. Research tells us that children born to young mothers are at higher risk for low birth weight and infant mortality, have fewer skills and are less ready to enter kindergarten than their peers. They are also more likely to give birth as teens.

Waco Foundation is committed to improving quality of life for all McLennan County residents. In 2009, the Foundation’s Board of Trustees recognized a deep need to focus efforts on improving the community for our youngest residents, so they commissioned an early childhood study to better understand quality of life for children ages 0-3. The study found the average early childhood quality of life measured at 41.67% on a scale of 0 to 100 and was significantly lower than the average found in some neighborhoods. Those results, coupled with Waco Foundation’s goal to engage in more proactive and strategic grantmaking, laid the groundwork for the launch of the SmartBabies Initiative.

SmartBabies works to facilitate cross-sector collaboration with professionals who provide direct services to parents and families. Waco Foundation provides fiscal resources, staff time and neutral facilitation to ensure the success of this community-wide initiative. Many times, organizations have similar goals but lack the capacity to engage with each other because the work is vast and time is limited. SmartBabies is designed to bring these organizations together to collectively address early childhood quality of life.

One of the great things about our community is the willingness to participate in this type of collaboration. Often times, this means setting aside agendas to work on something that may not be in direct relation to an organization’s goals but will ultimately benefit the entire community. As a native of Waco, I was eager to be a part of this because I want to see change happen in my community for families and children — somewhat like LeBron James has been for Cleveland and basketball (if you’re not a basketball fan you can contact me for clarification). My work allows me to engage with the organizations that want to see real change happen, and early childhood is the best place to begin a successful trajectory for children in Waco.

Our community is in the perfect position for initiatives like SmartBabies. The size, willingness and commitment to see change from so many individuals and organizations are strengths we must continue to build on. While we are primed for this type of work, it’s important for everyone to understand the length of time it takes to fully understand the skillset needed to see the change we want. This is truly a marathon, not a sprint.

We’ve learned a great deal since we officially launched the SmartBabies Initiative in 2011. Through the extensive research we’ve conducted through partnerships with many local, state and national organizations, we’ve learned that preventing an unhealthy environment is the key to improving quality of life for our children. While this may not seem surprising, it confirms that we have to continue to look at a woman’s health and quality of life before she ever gets pregnant if we truly want to impact the life of her children. This means focusing on things that we may not have thought about initially, such as the importance of well-woman exams, access to affordable birth control for women

and families to plan their pregnancies and teen pregnancy prevention, to improve life for our children.

We’ve experienced many successes along the way, including collaboration with the Healthy Babies Coalition and the launch of Nurse Family Partnerships and Healthy Outcomes through Prevention and Early Support (HOPES). These partnerships serve as examples of how effective collaboration works for the benefit of our entire community. In fact, Nurse Family Partnership and HOPES will bring in $3 million of outside funding to the Waco community, specifically for the purpose of improving quality of life for our children. For women and families who are planning to become pregnant, are pregnant or have small children, I highly recommend looking into these programs for fantastic resources about raising children. You can visit their websites here:

Waco Foundation has also learned many lessons from the SmartBabies Initiative that will help us continue to best serve our community. Our Board and staff have developed a deeper understanding of our role as a strategic grantmaker. We now know the longevity necessary to see long-term success, and we’ve gained a better understanding of the pace of this type of work. As the community foundation for McLennan County, Waco Foundation believes this type of work is necessary to accomplish our mission. In addition, the Foundation has invested in Prosper Waco, which has helped us achieve continuous collaboration for the long-term. Our hope is to be able to replicate the SmartBabies model to address other pressing community challenges.

Waco Foundation’s SmartBabies Initiative is directly tied to long-term objectives and goals. The work is difficult as there is no exact prescription for how we can produce real change, but we’ve proven over the last few years that progress can be made when we focus our efforts as a community. I’m excited to see the continued impact of our work and am grateful to the Waco community for embodying the work of SmartBabies, so we can create meaningful change in the place we all call home.

Ashley Weaver, a native Wacoan, brings to her position as Director of the SmartBabies Initiative extensive knowledge, background and passion. She holds a Bachelor of Science from Texas State University in Elementary Education as a certified teacher. She continued her education at Brown University where she received her Master of Arts in Urban Education Policy. Having served as project coordinator for the Greater Waco Community Education Alliance, Ashley gained valuable knowledge about the successes and challenges of this great community. She has extensive experience with community-based projects at a local and national level, bringing together stakeholders to achieve a goal. Ashley’s experience make her uniquely qualified for this most pressing position as we strive towards a community of SmartBabies.

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