Traditional sources of food for American Indians and Alaskan Natives (AI/AN) were the healthiest we could ask for today. Seafood, indigenous fruits and vegetables, grains, squash, game (big and small) and the best part is, it would all be considered “organic!” Like most Americans, AIAN communities struggle to avoid processed foods high in sugars, calories, salt, and fat. Sometimes the most nutritious meal of the day for a child might be while they are in school.
The Suquamish Foundation partnered with the Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP (Early Childhood Education Assistance Program, Washington State’s free preschool program) to apply for the Voices for Healthy Kids grant from the American Heart Association. Our goal is to secure dedicated flexible funding in the 2023 Washington State Legislative session that tribes and tribal organizations can use to access indigenous/traditional foods, outdoor learning (especially helpful for social distancing), and culturally appropriate curriculum and materials for use in early childhood classrooms.
While Suquamish has an idea of what Suquamish early childhood educational needs are, and WSA is familiar with Head Start and ECEAP across Washington, we decided that we needed to gain more input and feedback from other tribes and tribal organizations, too. We worked with several directors of tribal early childhood education centers in preparation to apply for this grant. After receiving the grant, we started coordinating monthly meetings with directors for a broad understanding of their unique needs as well as concerns common to all of them. One of the benefits the directors expressed was the ability to discuss successes and opportunities for improvement with other directors in an informal manner.
Tribes and tribal organizations are spread out from urban, suburban, and remote rural areas, which means access to mental health consultants, therapists for children with emotional, physical, or mental impairments, and/or evaluations in order to qualify for any of the above services. If children do get an evaluation and are lucky enough to qualify, then getting those services are another set of hurdles. Some children age out before they even get those services. The funding that we plan to get appropriated can be used to increase access to those services.
At our previous meeting, we had representatives from the National Indian Head Start Directors Association to update us on updates and progress on the federal level. They also received a lot of feedback about the needs and concerns from the Tribal Directors. We have also had meetings with Washington State’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), which oversees the state’s preschool program, ECEAP, and are preparing for another meeting with their Office of Tribal Relations.
We just finished our first survey of tribal directors to further our understanding of their situations. Our survey asked about what is working well and what needs improvement. A common thread was the lack of a quality rating improvement system made for tribal communities.
The campaign plan also calls for bringing on a lobbyist this summer to prepare for and implement working with the Washington State legislature’s 2023 session. The Suquamish Tribe and many other tribes have relationships with lobbyists already to help get us up to speed in time for the next session.
One of our strategies is to include parents as ambassadors to be active in the advocacy campaign and hopefully testify in front of the legislature. With input and participation from parents and the tribal early childhood directors, we will have a well-rounded campaign to help our youngest children get the help they need.