All in for NC Kids: Q&A with Transylvania County Commissioner Page Ives Lemel

DHHS Senior Early Childhood Policy Advisor Rebecca Planchard and Transylvania County Commissioner Page Ives Lemel.

DHHS Senior Early Childhood Policy Advisor Rebecca Planchard and Transylvania County Commissioner Page Ives Lemel. 

April 25, 2019 – The Early Childhood Action Plan for North Carolina launched in February with a vision to support the state’s young children to grow up healthy in safe and nurturing families, schools, and communities. The plan sets forth 10 bold, measurable goals – spanning health, child welfare and wellbeing, and early learning – to achieve through collective action by the year 2025. Reaching the goals in the plan will require innovative thinking and building on great work happening across the state. 

As one way of helping the state drive toward the Early Childhood Action Plan goals, NCDHHS is sharing how leaders and advocates across the state are supporting young children in their communities. To recommend someone to be featured in a Q&A profile, send an email to ECAP@dhhs.nc.gov.

DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen and other members of the NCDHHS team recently visited Transylvania County to learn more about the ongoing efforts there to support young children and how their work aligns with the Early Childhood Action Plan. County Commissioner Page Ives Lemel shares reflections on Transylvania County’s work below. 

Tell us a little about yourselves. What do you do in your role?

I am a county commissioner in Transylvania County. I have been a county commissioner since December of 2012.  Being a county commissioner gives me a huge opportunity to serve my community by calling people together to study an issue.  

Why is focusing on early childhood important to you? Why are you #Allin4NCKids?

I know this is a cliché, but children are our future. In North Carolina, we are seeing a declining birth rate coupled with an increase in our percentage of senior citizens. Every child born today in North Carolina will be needed in our 21st century workforce. 

Additionally, the demands for social services continues to grow. The largest single area of demand for social services is in our young adult population, those who turn 18 with substantial chronic issues that necessitate assigning them to guardianship relationships. These fragile adults may be wards of the state for life. It is so clear we can no longer react to these challenges when they are presented. It is imperative our communities become proactive. We must prevent the problems from happening in the first place.  

Why is focusing on early childhood important to Transylvania County?

Focusing on early childhood is important everywhere. However, here in Transylvania County, we were specifically challenged by our high number of children entering kindergarten who were below or far below expected kindergarten readiness measures. In our county, 78 percent of entering kindergarteners were not ready for school, but we had one school where we saw 95 percent unprepared. Also, our county has a significant child poverty rate and food insecurity rate. We wanted to do a better job of supporting our young children through the most crucial developmental period in their lives. We wanted to define ourselves as a community who truly cared for our little ones, and we have a real chance to do that with just 1,450 children ages 0 to 5.  

Describe the work that Transylvania County has done in support of young children. How did this work get started? What has kept it going? 

Once the county’s challenges around kindergarten readiness, child poverty and food insecurity came to my attention, I immediately asked County Manager Jaime Laughter how we might tackle the issues. She and I decided to bring our stakeholders together for a luncheon in May 2015. We identified every county agency, both public and private, that touched the lives of young children. We wanted full participation and total buy-in as we started this self-examination. Our group met monthly and began collecting data to identify the issues facing our children as seen by each of the agencies we had around the table. The culmination of our initial work was reported in “The State of the Young Child” in December 2015.  

Once we had our report, we broke our group into four standing sub-committees to provide more in-depth exploration of opportunities to meet the existing needs. The larger group continues to meet monthly, and our sub-committees each meet monthly with report-outs at each of our larger group meetings. This assures continued forward progress. 

Additionally, we were very intentional in not forming another organization or 501(c)3. Our existing organizations were doing great work, and this is a small community of limited resources. We did not want to be in competition with one another. We wanted to support and expand the good work of our existing partners. 

If another county wanted to do change outcomes for young children, what advice would you give them to get started? 

Follow our initial steps. Get all your stakeholders in the room. Collect the data to drive decisions. You may think you know the problems, but the data will show you the right path. Make it clear that the successes are shared community wide. No one person or one group owns the success. The children of your community will.

Do you want to share what your community is doing and how they are #Allin4NCkids? Email us at ECAP@dhhs.nc.gov.