With all of Sarasota’s natural beauty and its wealth of cultural, social and intellectual assets, people often forget the struggles that many local families face every day. And these challenges are only magnified when the family has children to care for and raise.
Local nonprofit organization Children First was founded in 1961 with this at the core of its mission. Its founders realized that comprehensive family care was the key to ensuring the next generation of children has an opportunity for success.
“It’s important to me for a very simple reason,” says Children First CEO and President Philip Tavill. “I believe everybody, regardless of circumstance, should have an opportunity to be successful in life. If you invest when they’re still in the womb, and you make sure their brains and everything else are developing properly, they’ve got an opportunity for success. From conception to age 5, you get one shot, and it’s thrilling to be part of giving that child every opportunity.”
Today, the organization serves approximately 500 children whose families qualify as living in poverty. Tavill says they begin working with mothers as early as during pregnancy, after which the children enter an early-childhood development program designed to help prepare them for kindergarten.
Care includes nutrition (the children eat breakfast, lunch and a snack every day at Children First) physical and mental health screenings to ensure healthy development, as well as social and emotional monitoring.
One key element of the organization is its comprehensive nature. The programs don’t begin and end with the children; family advocates also work with the parents to help improve their financial situations.
“If you can provide help for the child, but not for the family, that’s not going to go very far for that child,” says Tavill.
Unfortunately, due to the recent economic recession, Tavill says many parents who were once able to provide for their children have lost their source of income, and Children First’s waiting list has grown to 300 children.
The organization hopes to raise funds to provide an appropriate space for the waitlisted children as well as money to scholarship them, which costs between $9,000 and $10,000 per year, per student, for educational programs, screenings, family counseling and food.
“It’s easy to say that’s an awful lot of money,” says Tavill. “But, when you consider 238 service days each year, from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., our per-hour cost for nutrition, education, health, mental and family services is really efficient, and we’re effective at what we do. In our ideal world, we would serve every child in Sarasota County in need.”
BY THE NUMBERS
300 — Number of children on the waiting list
500 — Approximate number of children currently served
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