The Time is NOW

What does it take for children to thrive? Especially children who live in low-income areas where daily challenges are rampant: high-crime neighborhoods, underfunded schools and parents who are constantly trying to make ends meet. Do we recognize the strengths and successful solutions communities are implementing to overcome these obstacles and can these interventions be further expanded? These are the essential questions explored by Boston Medical Center’s new Networks of Opportunity for Child Wellbeing (NOW) Program. Led by BMC Pediatrician Renée Boynton-Jarett, MD, ScD, NOW brings together specialized coalitions across the nation that share the goal of improving childhood outcomes through community action.

Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWFJ), NOW is both a face-to-face and online platform focused on building the capacity of grassroots organizations to promote the health and well-being of underserved children in their communities. The work is aimed at community-driven strategies to promote child well-being, and prevent and mitigate adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect and exposure to violence. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children from low-income neighborhoods are five times more likely to endure adverse childhood experiences.

“What we know is that these types of adverse experiences cast a long shadow. These children are more likely to have developmental delays, poor academic performance, risky social behaviors and suffer from chronic health conditions,” explains Boynton-Jarrett.

As Boynton-Jarrett sees it, adverse childhood experiences are not born from individual circumstances but are vastly entrenched in complex societal issues. Re-framing food insecurity, lack of affordable housing and neighborhood violence as social determinants of health can open conversations with community leaders and organizations about their roles in creating change for at-risk children.

The NOW project connects a range of organizations from urban, suburban and rural areas. The contrasts in their missions and the populations they serve are vast. For example, New Mexico-based Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment works to improve access to nutrition in the Navajo Nation while New Jersey-based Essex County Council for Young Children focuses on preschool enrollment for new immigrants. During symposia, these organizations among others share lessons learned and best practices while mentors help to scale up their capacity to create more change in their communities. NOW also has a robust online component housing resources, online webinars and podcasts to further support coalitions in their missions.

“We are hoping to show grassroots organizations that they don’t have to wait for policy change, that they are capable of doing the work themselves. It is about empowerment,” explains Ronda Alexander, director of operations for NOW.

The NOW project is a part of the RWJF-funded HOPE (Harnessing Opportunity for Positive, Equitable Early Childhood Development) Consortium that includes Nemours Children’s Health System and the BUILD Initiative.