By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Young children play on colorful slides and swings at a day care in Lesotho, South Africa, in a scene from a short Catholic Relief Services video about a holistic approach to early childhood development. Another scene shows parents learning to make toys for their children from common household items. The scenes weave around a young working mother’s testimony, marveling at how an approach, which provides nourishment of body and mind, helps her toddler to thrive. “When she gets home, I know she will have a new word,” the mother says.
Bishop Thomas Zinkula and a dozen Catholics from parishes in Scott County watched the video during a March 6 gathering at diocesan headquarters in Davenport. They participated in a legislative visit with two staffers from the Davenport offices of U.S. Senator Charles Grassley and U.S. Representative Dave Loebsack. Two Catholic Relief Services (CRS) representatives provided the gathering with resources to encourage support for the Global Child Thrive Act (S.2715 and HR.4864). The bill mandates integration of early childhood development into current foreign assistance programs serving young children and their families.
The proposed legislation does not call for additional funding; rather it seeks to use foreign aid assistance more effectively to benefit the development potential for young children. At present, the international assistance, a fraction of 1 percent of the federal budget, is “siloed” or restricted to a single use such as food, said Jessica Howell, field director for the Midwest office of CRS.
As a new mom with an 18-month-old daughter, Howell said she knows the importance of nurturing her toddler’s physical and mental wellbeing. “The entire trajectory of (children’s) lives can be shaped in their early years,” Howell said. Advocating for legislation such as the Global Child Thrive Act responds to Catholic teaching for each person “to achieve God’s plan for him or her,” said Nora Dvorak, a volunteer in the Davenport Diocese’s Social Action Office.
“An astounding 250 million children worldwide are at risk of stunted brains due to the negative impacts of poverty,” wrote two Catholic leaders in a Nov. 14, 2019, letter to four members of Congress on the Foreign Aid Committee. “Poor health, nutrition, inadequate learning, and exposure to conflict and displacement impair vulnerable children’s optimal development. The good news is that high quality interventions delivered early can mitigate the impact of these factors.” Archbishop Timothy Broglio, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, and Sean Callahan, president and CEO of CRS, signed the letter.
The Global Child Thrive Act supports countries in their development goals by targeting proven interventions for their most vulnerable children. It would also multiply the positive impact for young children of U.S. foreign aid programs by integrating early childhood development into current programming, among other things.
“CRS helped develop the bill into the full Global Child Thrive Act,” said Alyssa Riutta, volunteer manager for the Midwest Region of CRS. Both the House and Senate bill were introduced with bipartisan support. The House bill passed out of the Foreign Affairs Committee and could go to the full House later this month, she said.
Penny Vacek, Sen. Grassley’s regional director in Davenport, and Brian Kramer, a caseworker in Loebsack’s Davenport office, took notes and asked questions as the gathering’s participants talked about the benefits of early childhood development and advocated for the Global Child Thrive Act.
The congressional staffers ate lunch with the group, which consisted of tossed salad and a simple, meatless rice dish prepared from a CRS Rice Bowl recipe. During Lent, Catholics around the diocese and across the nation fill cardboard Rice Bowls with coins and dollars to support CRS efforts, such as early childhood development projects.
Kent Ferris, diocesan director of Social Action and of Catholic Charities, slipped a few bills into a Rice Bowl on a table prior to the meal. He explained to Vacek and Kramer that Catholics around the diocese have raised $625,627.71 for CRS Rice Bowl over the past 10 years. He views that generosity as a demonstration of Catholics’ commitment to help support the work of CRS.
Howell pointed out that CRS and its collaborators engage in early childhood development initiatives on a small scale. Congressional support of integrated international aid will expand the ability to reach out to more children and families.
Kramer asked a question to clarify the difference the bill would make in distribution of international aid funds. “It’s more holistic,” Bishop Zinkula said.
“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of early childhood education,” said Nancy Stone, a retired educator with a PhD and member of Our Lady of Victory Parish in Davenport. Fellow parishioner Jeff Mason told the congressional staffers, “We were hoping to have you make a verbal commitment” to support the legislation.
Vacek and Kramer said they would bring that request to their bosses. “This is an easy ‘ask,’” Kramer said.