It's all about the children.
And parents and community leaders are striving each day, putting their heads together to come up with ways to make West Point a better place for children to live and grow with their parents, many of which need a loving, helping hand in raising their children.
The needs for the children in the community are recognized every year by West Point's Excel By 5 Coalition, who congregated March 22 at a town hall meeting where they discussed how the community as a whole can give West Point's young children the resources they need to help them excel in life, beginning at their very early stages.
Sherri White, Family Resource Center coordinator and Excel By 5 facilitator for West Point, said each year, surveys are passed out in schools and daycares for parents of young children, asking these parents what they think is the biggest need for young children and asking parents how can the community do a better job at supporting parents with young children. The group of about 60 adults and 30 children discussed how hard it is right now for almost everyone, especially with rising gas prices and many parents not being able to afford groceries for their family. Participants also talked about the responsibility of the community to assist teen parents and single parents.
“If we see someone having a hard time, there's something we can all do to pitch in and help out,” White said.
During the town hall meetings, the answers to the parent surveys are combined, and each year parents have a similar wish.
“This is the third year we've done this, and basically ever year the parents say the same thing,” White said. “They say, 'We love West Point, we have a loving community, but we need more free and economical activities for parents and children. They say we don't have a swimming pool, movies, bowling alley, skating rink, and the average family has a hard time affording some of the things we do offer in the community.”
Things for both kids and parents, like the Wellness Center, Girls Scouts, dance classes and activities at the Civic Center that often cost $10 or $20 a ticket, leaving many families in the community unable to participate in such activities.
Children often frequent Kid Town Park and Zuber Park in West Point, but to many parents that's not enough, White said. So attendants at the meeting brainstormed for ideas and came up with a few suggestions.
One participant recommended that the city sponsor a free family movie night in the park or at local churches. Susan Brasfield, Excel By 5 Coalition member, suggested a Delta Kappa Gamma sponsored program called Two Can Read, an initiative to bring books into the homes of three and four year olds in the community. Through this program, children would go to the library, obtain a container, work with their parents to fill the container with pennies, return their pennies to the library and receive a free book. Robert Smith, West Point School District School/Community liaison, suggested that churches in the community adopt a daycare and provide the daycare with supplies, whether it be cleaning or school supplies.
“It was really, really nice,” she said. “This one was our biggest town hall meeting ever, and I think each year it's getting bigger and better. Some of the comments were we have so many churches here, and if we can get the churches, the businesses and other organizations pulling together – it really does take a village to raise a child. We have so much of what it takes. It's just getting that word out and working together for the children.”
White said during their next coalition meeting, Excel By 5 members will begin working on a plan to implement the suggestions brought forth at the town hall meeting.
Already, Excel By 5 coordinates three free events for parents and children to attend each year. In partnership with North Mississippi Medical Center, Excel By 5 hosts an annual Kids Health Fair, at which children receive free health screenings while enjoying games and activities like train rides, inflatable jumpers, face painting and many more free activities as well as free food. The coalition also puts on a free kindergarten readiness event, which will be in April this year, for parents of children who will enter kindergarten the following school year. The third event changes from time to time, and this year Excel By 5 hosted Dad's Day, where coalition members focused on mentoring dads in the community.
West Point was the second city in Mississippi and the nation to become a certified Excel By 5 community in 2005 and is now working on its second recertification. An Excel By 5 certification means the city is a great place to raise children from birth through their kindergarten year.
“Becoming an Excel By 5 community is just the beginning,” White said. “It's not the end. When we came an Excel By 5 community, it was the beginning so we have certain things we have to do to maintain our certification.”
Having three community events a year, holding a town hall meeting and assisting local daycares with staff training are parts of the requirements to maintain the certification.