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UA Little Rock Children International

Flying under the radar, the youth development organization reaches more children and youth in Little Rock than any other.

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FIRST IN FAMILY TO ATTEND COLLEGE: Kaija Brown credits Children International for putting her on a path to success.
  • FIRST IN FAMILY TO ATTEND COLLEGE: Kaija Brown credits Children International for putting her on a path to success.

Kaija Brown credits UA Little Rock Children International for helping her become the first person in her family to attend college. Without the guidance of Children International, Brown figures she would be a high school dropout and pregnant. Instead, she's a sophomore at UA Little Rock double-majoring in political science and sign language interpretation on a full four-year Chancellor's Leadership Corp. scholarship.

Children International's mission is for every child to graduate from its program healthy, educated, employable and empowered to break the cycle of poverty. For Brown, that's meant everything from receiving regular dental screenings and assembling care packages and gift bags as part of a community service project with the Salvation Army to participating in peer-to-peer group "real talks," where teens talked about issues they might not be comfortable asking their parents about, like sex. "It was all about getting teens really educated on themselves," Brown said of the "real talks." As a member of the Children International Student Council, Brown organized a fashion show called Respect My S.W.A.G. (self-aware at a glance) on the UA Little Rock campus that promoted body positivity. She credits Children International for helping develop her leadership skills and prepare her for the real world.

For an organization that serves more young people than any other child development agency in Central Arkansas, UA Little Rock Children International seems to fly under the radar. That probably owes in part to its unique makeup: It's a partnership between UA Little Rock and Children International, an international nonprofit based in Kansas City working to end poverty around the world. Children International, founded in 1936, once operated a number of agencies throughout the U.S., but the Little Rock outpost, which opened almost 25 years ago, is now the humanitarian agency's only domestic site. Perhaps further obscuring its profile, Children International does very little programming out of its small headquarters on the campus of UA Little Rock. Instead, it operates almost entirely through more than 30 local partnerships — with schools, community centers and other nonprofits.

Thanks to its reliance on partnerships, Children International doesn't "have to continue to reinvent the wheel," executive director Ryan Davis said. "We don't have to be content experts on everything. We set these strategic objectives and then seek out people and organizations who are established at doing these things." For example, Children International partners with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance on a healthy eating initiative called Cooking Matters, which Children International can take into schools, community centers or the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children's Library. "A big part of our thrust is assisting these disparate organizations," Davis said.

In 2000, Children International began to work on one of its biggest collaborations, and one with perhaps the biggest impact: It assembled a Dental Health Action Team that included Arkansas Children's Hospital, the Arkansas Department of Health, the state Department of Human Services, Delta Dental Plan of Arkansas, Heart of Arkansas United Way, the Little Rock School District, the National Children's Oral Health Foundation, UA Pulaski Technical College and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. In 2005, that partnership opened the Future Smiles Dental Clinic at Wakefield Elementary. It's the only dental clinic in a public school in Arkansas, and to date, it's provided almost 37,000 dental screenings, toothbrush kits and oral instructions to LRSD students.

Kids who attend Bale, Stephens or Wakefield elementary schools in the LRSD are eligible to enroll in Children International (Franklin and Wilson, which the LRSD closed this year, once fed into the program). A sibling of a student who has already enrolled in the program is eligible, too, regardless of where she goes to school. Because of that connection, the 2,700 students enrolled in Children International represent nearly 10 percent of students in the district and come from 46 of the 48 LRSD schools. The program targets kids who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

"The idea of being poor has such a bad connotation," Davis said. Many of the families in Children International whose incomes hover around the federal poverty level ($24,600 for a family of four) don't think of themselves as poor, he said. So Children International talks in terms of working to overcome a "poverty of opportunity," Davis said. One way Children International tries to help overcome that barrier is by bringing its kids, many of whom live within walking distance from UA Little Rock, onto campus for programming. That influenced Brown. "We spent so much time in the [Engineering and Information Technology] building, I was familiar with being on campus," she said. She didn't apply anywhere else for college.

Looking forward, Children International is working to add partnerships and increase its programming to better serve the 2,700 students currently enrolled, while also planning to nearly double the number of students in the program within five years. The employment piece of Children International's mission is new and will keep students up to age 24 involved in the program. Davis and company are still trying to develop programming to meet that aim. Children International would also like to have a large space of its own to serve large groups of students at once. Partnerships will always be integral to its mission, Davis said, but the autonomy of a space of its own would help Children International more effectively grow and serve more children, youths and young adults.

To give, visit ualr.edu/children or mail a check to UA Little Rock Children International, 2510 Fair Park Blvd., Little Rock, AR 72204.


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