Rural Serving Programs

Rural Programs Ensure All Residents Receive Early Childhood Services

For those who live in rural Kansas, country life has a lot of joys. Unobstructed sunsets, star filled nights, room to run. But these sparsely populated areas also pose some challenges for the early childhood educators dedicated to providing rural Kansas families with comprehensive services.

During the EC11 Summit , professionals from three successful rural-serving programs showed that when you are determined, work hard and link arms with a diverse set of partners, you can ensure that the residents – especially the littlest ones – get the support they need to thrive.

The panel of experts represented very different communities, some with unique challenges, others with shared experiences. All had examples of how partnerships enabled them to expand their reach and how they have honed their programs over time to be more efficient and effective.  The panel included the Kansas Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program in southeast Kansas, Russell Child Development Center and the Family Support Project at the Pony Express Partnership for Children in northeast Kansas.

Southeast Kansas
MIECHV Program unifies providers around shared mission of working together to serve at-risk families

The professionals focused on helping at-risk mothers, their children and families get the best start in life agreed on one important fact: the need in southeast Kansas was tremendous. They were all working hard, but often alone, to chip away at the problems of poverty, drug addiction, abuse and lack of education.

But when they all came together through the Southeast MIECHV program, the early childhood education partners were able to serve a greater number of families, provide better services and learn valuable new information and practices from one another, reported Dr. Debbie Richardson, home visiting program manager for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

The federal MIECHV program was created in 2010 with the goal of supporting evidence-based home visiting services for at-risk pregnant women and parents with young children.  In Kansas, MIECHV has targeted two high-needs regions: urban Wyandotte County and rural Southeast Kansas, which includes Cherokee, Labette, Montgomery, Neosho and Wilson counties.


In southeast Kansas, the MIECHV partners include the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, which receives the federal grant funds and manages the program, and local partners Early Head Start, Healthy Families America and Parents as Teachers.

These partners were given a big mandate:

  • Work together to deliver a coordinated system of high-quality evidence-based home visiting program services.
  • Improve child and maternal outcomes through enhanced interventions and system linkages within the comprehensive early childhood system.
  • Sustain high quality data and evaluation efforts
  • Enhance the home visiting system and service coordination

At the onset of the partnership, the agencies were working individually to address the community needs within the scope of their influence, but did not see themselves as a “system” through which they could cooperate and collaborate to better serve the population, Richardson said. So one of the first things the MIECHV team did was pull all the partners together to lay the foundation for a shared future.

“We did strategic planning in communities to set common goals and objectives,” Richardson described. “We created deepening trust and respect, addressing misunderstandings and improving protocol to create a collective perspective as a team, and as a system.”

Together, the partners created a new coordinated outreach and referral system called My Family. The My Family partners include families, community agencies, health departments, local hospitals and the community at large, Richardson said. Families connect through their My Family coordinator, who refers them to the home visiting programs and other services in their community that best meets their needs. The new, collaborative system is succeeding in engaging and retaining families, and helping further address mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence.

Shelli Walrod, a team member with the Kansas Children’s Service League – Healthy Families in Crawford County, has seen firsthand what a difference the MIECHV partnership has made in their community:

“Due to the time spent together, having common program goals and relying on another entity to determine the families that need our services, our partnership have gone from non-existent to true friendship levels. We are continuously thinking of new ways that we can work together to better serve families. Because resources are scarce, staff is over-extended and home visiting is an isolated endeavor, partnerships have become even more critical to the delivery of home-based early childhood education services. Since our relationships have strengthened, our coordination of services and sharing of resources has improved dramatically.”

The proof is in the numbers. Since the program’s inception, they have added 17 full time home visitors and 224 caseload slots, and expanded service availability in additional counties. “We have increased our capacity and enrollment of services to vulnerable, at-risk moms and families,” Richardson said, “Needs that were unable to be met prior to this infusion of federal dollars.”

Southwest Kansas
Russell Child Development Center Provides Essential Services in Remote Regions of Kansas

To understand the scope of the job for the early childhood professionals who work with the Russell Child Development Center (RCDC), you have to first understand the scope of the area they serve:

  • There is a lot of land. The service area is 15,889 square miles, about a fifth of the state of Kansas, and encompasses 19 counties.
  • There are not a lot of people. The official population is 151,784, 13,146 of whom are under 5.
  • The citizens are very diverse. Nearly 40 percent of the residents are Hispanic/Latino and one-in-four households speak a language other than English in the home.
  • There is a lot of need. Nearly 20 percent of the children under 18 live below 100 percent of the poverty level.
  • It’s hard for families to find services. For example, there are only 11 pediatricians in the service area, and these doctors are all located in four of the 19 counties.
  • Services are dwindling. Since 2011, the region has sustained a loss in Parents as Teachers programs, licensed home child care providers, the number of Head Start slots, and the number of public schools offering pre-k or 4-year-old at-risk programs.

The stats could cause discouragement. But for Deanna Berry, executive director of RCDC, and Katrina Lowry, director of the Building Blocks Project, it has redoubled their efforts to serve the children in their care. “Every child matters, regardless of where they live, even if it’s in a county where there are few people and resources,” Lowry stated. “That is challenging, so we adapt.”

One of the ways RCDC has adapted is by taking its programs to residents in all parts of its expansive service area or contracting with local services to deliver the programs.  “We are not a classroom, and not a school,” Berry said. “We are kind of wonky.”

RCDC has a wide group of partners that enable it to serve more children and families, including local school districts, local governments and law enforcement, area hospitals and doctors, social service agencies, and Parents as Teachers and Early Head Start.

Through ECBG funds, RCDC is able to serve 1,900 children through parent education programs, home visiting and before- and after-school programs. Through the Learn & Play Parent Child Groups, delivered at 32 sites, parents discover how to engage in structured play activities with their children. The Positive Parenting Program gives parents a toolbox of strategies to prevent and treat social, emotional, behavioral and developmental problems in their children.

Northeast Kansas
Pony Express Partnership for Children provides wraparound services for families

“We are small but mighty,” said April Todd about the Pony Express Partnership for Children (PEPC), where she is executive director. The partnership provides social services for the 10,000 residents of Marshall County, including children and families.

The PEPC is all about partnerships. It was founded when a group in the community came together to purchase a 100-year-old school for $1 from the school district, turning it into a one-stop shop for social services and supports in the county, Todd explained.

Additional agencies have located next to the center, turning the area into a campus focused on social service delivery. In this one location, families can access Parents as Teachers, Marshall County Lifelong Learning GED Program, Pony Express Infant Toddler Services, NEK-CAP, KVC Behavioral Healthcare, Salvation Army, Department for Children and Families, Pawnee Mental Health Services, and Marshall County Helping Hands Food Pantry.

“Just about every baby born to families in Marshall County is met with some services initially, like a Healthy Head Start visit,” Todd said. “With all the services in one location, 10 staff people can communicate on a regular basis, making it a smooth referral process.”

For example, PEPC has set a goal of reducing child abuse in Marshall County. So it provides wraparound support for families experiencing homelessness or deemed to be at-risk. Since a lack of affordable housing is an issue in Marshall County, PEPC provides step-down rental assistance. Families also receive weekly home visits, screenings for children and other early childhood services.  Even though 25 different organizations are involved in the collaboration, they work together to ensure they do not duplicate services, but instead provide layers of support, Todd said.

In 2016, PEPC served 165 unduplicated families, including 110 children. While Todd would like to have more staff and more financial resources to meet the need, she is pleased with all the program is accomplishing, thanks to the power of its partnerships, which enable them to extend their support.

“In a rural community, you have to have the entire community committed,” she said.

The EC-11 Summit was hosted by the Cabinet on April 18-19, 2017 and highlighted the importance of investing in Early Childhood. We know that there is an $11.00 return for every $1.00 invested in early childhood initiatives in Kansas. The EC to the 11th Power (EC11) Summit focused on the successes of Cabinet-funded initiatives and the power of those programs to improve the lives of children and families in Kansas.