Summer Road Trip 2019: Great Starts and Big Hearts in District 12

On the fifteenth stop of his road trip to visit all Extension districts in a single summer, director Jeff Dwyer meets Robin Schutz from Great Start Livingston to talk about community resources and support can give all children a great start.

January 13, 2020

Map of Michigan

Summer Road Trip 2019: Great Starts and Big Hearts in District 12

Jeff Dwyer:
In Livingston County, 43% of families surveyed by Great Start Livingston said that finding low-cost and free family activities was their biggest concern regarding their children eight years and younger. Great Start Livingston's mission is to assure a coordinated system of community resources and support to help all families give their children a great start. That's why we love partnering with them. I'm Jeff Dwyer, director of Michigan State University Extension, and this is Partnerships and Peninsulas.

Intro: This is Partnerships and Peninsulas, and just like the state of Michigan, this podcast is filled with stories of amazing people who are doing wonderful work from Marquette to Monroe. Sit back and discover everything you didn't know about Michigan State University Extension. Here's your host, Jeff Dwyer.

Jeff Dwyer: Joining me today is Robin Schutz. She is coordinator for Great Start Livingston. Thank you for being on the show today.

Robin Schutz: Hello, Jeff. Thank you for having me.

Jeff Dwyer: So how does Great Start Livingston help children and families?

Robin Schutz: Great Start Livingston is the early childhood collaborative, which is a statewide initiative to support children and families throughout the state. We work through the Michigan Department of Education and it's a coordinated effort to focus on early childhood. So we work with community partners to look at the system, build the system, improve the system so that things are in place for them to support their children's development as they prepare for school.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, it's a very exciting thing that you're doing here. The building we're sitting in here today in Howell is just a lovely building, and I can see how it supports the work that you do outside as I came in the door. You've won awards the past three years for what happens here and so we really congratulate you for that and we're fortunate that we're one of your partners. Talk to me about how MSU Extension and Great Start Livingston work together.

Robin Schutz: MSU Extension is one of our community partners. They are a member of our Great Start Collaborative and they also sit on a couple of our work group committees, our early childhood community partner committee and also our parents and family committee. They also have a presence on our steering committee. So through that partnership, we're able to work with them as we go through our discussions and development of programs and activities and system pieces for early childhood.

They also help us by delivering their programming for our families, and this can be through parent workshops that they support because they have curriculum and facilitators for that. They also have expertise that they bring to our committee meetings. Their knowledge and background data and research, which helps us to further the quality of what we can offer to our families. They also have various resources that we've shared with families. They have online classes that we've shared with families, and they also have articles that we've shared. So they're able to provide an online presence as well that we can share with families who might be unable to attend a program.

Jeff Dwyer: So Robin, among the millions of people who listen to Partnerships in Peninsulas, the podcast we're recording today... that's a joke, by the way... there may be some parents though, in the Livingston County area who are listening. What are some of the benefits or impacts of the programs of Great Start Livingston that parents might realize from working closely with you in participating with their children?

Robin Schutz: A lot of our parents attend these classes because they want to learn more, they want to develop the skills. Many of them have skills and it's just helping them move a little bit further along to help support them during this parenting time. Many of the things that we do in our life, a job or school, we receive training and this allows us an opportunity to support parents in somewhat of their training as they parent their children. They can also continue their relationship with Great Start Livingston and MSU Extension and become a part of our parent coalition and a part of our collaborative because that's another key component of our work is that we have the parent voice so their parent voice helps direct and drive our work.

Parents who complete these programs actually request to come to more programs and we have many parents who come to multiple programs. We have different topics based on what they ask for, what their needs and wants, and it's nice to see them get more involved and they start meeting other families and making those connections.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, it's really a terrific opportunity. While we're on this topic, if parents of small children in the area are listening to this podcast want to get involved, haven't been before, what's the best way for them to do that?

Robin Schutz: They can get involved with us locally through Great Start Livingston, we have a Facebook page, we also have a website and through that website they can get on our email list. Our Facebook page always shows upcoming events and activities, free and low-cost activities available in the community. If they happen to be in another county, there are Great Starts throughout the state. They can look up Great Start and their county's name and be able to find some resources that way also.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, that's a great reminder. So are there any programs maybe that have been just very successful for you here in recent years or that you're maybe planning new this upcoming year that you would want people to know about?

Robin Schutz: We've been finding our parent education programs to be very successful with our partnership with MSU Extension. We have multiple people who RSVP and they stay consistent throughout the programs, which are sometimes four to six weeks in length. And they keep continuing to come back and continue to learn. This fall we will be offering a program, Together We Can. That's an opportunity for parents to come together and learn about co-parenting. There's a curriculum and parenting as a team, and the workshop is for all parents, for children birth to eight and looking forward to offering that one in the fall.

In the spring we will offer another parent education program and we are looking at the possibility of mindfulness and having a component for parents and for children. So they're both learning the importance of mindfulness and learning some skills that they can take on and use in their own.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, you and I were talking a little bit before recording the podcast today and it's just amazing the range of programs and the range of topics that you have available for families. And you and I were talking about how it not only takes a village to address these issues, but it also takes a wide range of knowledge and understanding and everything from mindfulness to literacy to nutrition to make sure the children are well positioned to learn and to grow.

Robin Schutz: We look at the whole child and even though it's only early childhood and from age zero to five, there are about 2,000 days, 2,000 days that a parent has before their child enters kindergarten. And we like to look at what can we do to support parents during those 2,000 days. And that may be things related to pediatric health, it could be related to social-emotional health, the literacy component, looking at all the pre-literacy pieces so that parents are talking and engaging with their children to support that development. So all of those pieces combined together, we look for ways to support families so that they can have those tools in their toolbox. So then they can support their children.

Jeff Dwyer: Well Robin, you and I are here in Howell today. As you know, I'm on a tour of the state, so I'm in what we call District 12, which means nothing to anyone else, but it helps us to sort of keep things straightened out. And I will say that one more visit inside of counties to do after this week. And one of the things I've learned and really appreciated during this tour in talking to partners like you all over the state is almost always you don't just connect with us in one way as an individual, but you connect in a number of different ways. And one of the ways you've connected is you have recently joined our MSU Extension District 12 advisory council. So first of all I want to thank you for doing that, but how is being on the council a benefit to you when you have so many obligations for your time already?

Robin Schutz: Well, personally I have a connection with MSU Extension. I grew up a 4-H’er in the agricultural side, livestock, and went to the fairs. So I've always been drawn to MSU Extension and knowing that they have all these multiple facets. My part to be on the advisory is to share the early childhood component. So I get to hear what people are doing in other areas connected to MSU Extension throughout our district and also throughout the state. And it allows me to then connect that with the early childhood and parent piece.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, we're grateful for your support on the advisory council and all you do with Great Start Livingston and the opportunities we have to work with you. I think a lot of people maybe aren't aware that although we have over 600 really outstanding experts in MSU Extension that work in all 83 counties of the state, we can't do what we do without the nearly 20,000 volunteers of various sorts working in 4-H and natural resources and on advisory councils and that sort of thing.

So we're really grateful for the partnership with you and Great Start Livingston, but also for your willingness to invest in the advisory council in helping matching here in District 12 and all of our staff really provide the services that we would like to in this area of the state.

So in closing here, you and I had a chance to talk about this in a very general sense earlier this morning. What do you think are some of the future opportunities that we could explore together at Great Start Livingston and MSU Extension?

Robin Schutz: I would love to move things forward with being able to support families and children in Livingston and throughout the state. And MSU Extension provides that expertise when they come to our meetings and we've discussed things to help support parents who might not be able to attend, physically, events and looking at online options. So we could reach more parents. So looking at things such as Facebook Live or Zoom, and whether we get to a point that we can do that to have meetings or even just educational components. Have videos, apps, but just looking at that technology piece in a way that's supportive for parents as they can find a way to access those skills. So that's one way we want to move forward.

And then always looking at when we're doing something, is there a way we can add in an evaluation and a research component so we can look at how much we really are impacting these families and these children as we then start to look at some of the data when they enter kindergarten and even their literacy data once they reach third grade.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, those are very exciting opportunities and we really look forward to working with you in the coming months and years to make this partnership even greater. This is Partnerships and Peninsulas. My name is Jeff Dwyer. I have the privilege of being the director of Michigan State University Extension. Thank you, Robin, for joining me today.

Robin Schutz: Thank you, Dr. Dwyer. I was glad to be here.