Child Development

Help Me Grow: From Singular Focus To “Triple Threat”

By: Paul H. Dworkin, MD

The momentous occasion of the 10th annual Help Me Grow National Forum, held in Buffalo, New York, is a time for reflection and celebration. While I am grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts and emotions, I am admittedly challenged to do justice to this noteworthy event. In particular, neither I, nor any of my colleagues engaged in the early efforts to advance the Help Me Grow model, could possibly have foreseen how far we would travel, both literally and figuratively.

When struggling to capture my thoughts, I confess to often amusing myself by considering sports analogies. I have no doubt as to the impact of preparing this blog during “March Madness,” the frenzied time period occupied by the NCAA basketball championships. We were fortunate that Hartford hosted opening round games and I had the good fortune of attending all three sessions held in our local arena.  The highlight of first round games was the surprising performance of unheralded Murray State, a 12th seed, who had little difficulty in dominating the much higher ranked, 5th seeded Marquette. The star of the game (and of the opening round) was Murray State’s Ja Morant, who accomplished what few have done at this level of tournament play in registering a so-called “triple double,” which involved double figure scoring, assists, and rebounds. His performance was simply magical.

So how does Ja’s proficient scoring, passing, and rebounding possibly relate to the evolution of Help Me Grow over the two decades since the original pilot study? That both occurred in Hartford is purely coincidental and hardly monumental. Rather, and please indulge me, I suggest that our efforts in the Help Me Grow National Center and among our affiliates have evolved from a singular focus on the diffusion and implementation of the Help Me Grow model to also promoting the model to advance early childhood system building, as well as engaging our affiliate network as a remarkable vehicle for the spread of early childhood innovations. In fact, we now consider the National Center to be, like Ja, a “triple threat,” but, in our case, by advancing Help Me Grow diffusion, early childhood system building, and early childhood innovations.

How did our work evolve in this manner over the past two decades? What were the relative contributions of vision, mission, design, and serendipity? I submit that the answer is likely a combination of all. While conducting our original pilot study of the model in Hartford in the late 1990’s, we were hopeful of demonstrating both the feasibility and efficacy of the model to enable sustainable implementation across the city. The success of the pilot and the receptivity of both the Executive and Legislative branches of state government led to funding for statewide diffusion of the model in the 2002 state budget. Every biennial budget since then has included support for Help Me Grow under the direction of a state agency, currently the State Office of Early Childhood. Statewide spread and sustainability exceeded our initial modest aspirations.

Serendipity did indeed come into play when I received a call from Dr. Joseph Donnelly, a pediatric neurologist, who had relocated in 2002 from Springfield, Massachusetts to Orange County, California and the Children’s Hospital of Orange County and UC Irvine to serve as director of the Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders. I had known Joe in his prior role at Baystate Medical Center just across the Massachusetts line from Connecticut and had gladly shared our work with him, his colleagues, and trainees in educational conferences. When Joe relocated to the west coast, he recognized the potential for Orange County to benefit from Help Me Grow and inquired as to our capacity to assist him and his colleagues in building out the model in his new setting. Who could have imagined that a sharing of information with a colleague a mere 25 miles away would lead to the opportunity to provide technical assistance to a community on the nation’s opposite cost? The success of Help Me Grow Orange County encouraged us to consider how we might provide technical assistance to other jurisdictions interested in implementing Help Me Grow and the Help Me Grow National Center is today providing support to nearly 30 states in their installation and implementation efforts.

The growth of our Forum parallels, perhaps not surprisingly, that of our network. Our initial grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation enabled us to both formally establish the National Center and plan our first convening of affiliates. Though relatively modest in number, with five states and some 50 people in attendance, we enthusiastically and meticulously hosted the first Forum in Hartford, being certain to control as many of the variables as possible to increase the likelihood of success. As the number of affiliates began to grow, we continued to host annual Forums in Hartford in 2011 and 2012.

By 2013, with some 15 affiliates comprising a growing network, affiliates increasingly encouraged us to afford them the opportunity to host this event. In particular, Barbara Leavitt and Help Me Grow Utah extended a generous and enthusiastic invitation that we happily accepted to hold the fourth Forum in Provo. The unqualified success of the convening has encouraged affiliates to extend offers to host and we have held subsequent Forums across the nation: Miami, Florida; Costa Mesa, California; Greenville, South Carolina; Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Seattle, Washington.  We are excited to hold our 10th Forum in Buffalo, New York, hosted by Help Me Grow Western New York. Admittedly, we have no official process through which we solicit proposals from affiliates interested in hosting. Rather, informal brainstorming consistently yields a willing and able affiliate host and has remarkably maintained a geographic distribution affording fair and equitable access to all affiliates, or at least as fair as possible considering that the broad spread of our network extends to our remarkably loyal and diligent Help Me Grow Alaska!

Geography is hardly the sole feature of the Forum that has experienced remarkable change. For example, the size of the Forum has expanded roughly tenfold, with approximately 50 individuals attending the first convening and some 500 joining us in Buffalo. The agenda has also undergone considerable evolution, with a multitude of workshops, poster sessions, and exhibits now accompanying plenary sessions, receptions, and keynote addresses.

For me, two consistent Forum elements are particularly meaningful and rewarding. From the very first Forum, I have tremendously enjoyed and appreciated the remarkable opportunity to engage with our many Help Me Grow partners from across the nation. As a veteran of many (many, many) years of diverse meetings and related convenings, I am confident in declaring that the Help Me Grow National Forum is unlike any other in my experience from the standpoint of engagement, enthusiasm, good will, and camaraderie. Joy is abundant as generous and passionate child advocates share their experiences, thoughts, aspirations, and recommendations. The only downside to our dramatic growth in size is the challenge of remembering and recognizing all with whom we have come in contact. While I continue to be very disciplined in surveying our directory of attendees, and am so grateful for the individual photos, I am nonetheless increasingly mindful of the difficulty inherent in spontaneously recognizing all with whom I and we have had such meaningful and momentous interactions. I am hopeful that no one regards such challenges as any lack of admiration or appreciation.

I am also grateful for my annual assignment to offer a brief summary of my key observations and impressions at the conclusion each year’s Forum. The nature of this activity does not allow for planning or advanced preparation. Furthermore, it requires that I be disciplined and pay close attention to as many sessions as possible. Nonetheless, I am always confident that the rich presentations, discussions, and displays will yield more than sufficient food for thought. In fact, my greatest dilemma is what to exclude. Given the less-than-prime-time placement of this item on the Forum schedule, and considering the three solid days of activities leading up to this final offering, I am always amazed by the presence and attention of so many whose travel plans do not require an earlier departure. Once again, this speaks to the incredible commitment of all so engaged in this meaningful work.

The Forum always yields information and insights that set our National Center priorities for the next year, as well as infuses even greater energy and commitment into our collective efforts. This year will, undoubtedly, be no exception. Together, we will set the stage for the next decade of collaboration.   Indeed, unlike the ruthless “survive and advance” mentality of the NCAA tournament, we are all on a championship team, with the children and families we serve as the real winners.

Paul H. Dworkin, MD is executive vice president for community child health at Connecticut Children’s, director of Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health and founding director of Help Me Grow® National Center.  Dr. Dworkin is also a professor of pediatrics at UConn School of Medicine.  Learn more »

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