Union County First Steps Executive Director Linda Parker looks forward to retirement, especially knowing that she is leaving the program in good hands.
Parker has been working with Union County First Steps since its inception in 2001.
“It has really been a journey,” she said, explaining ways in which the program has grown in 11 years.
One of the major changes for the program since 2001 is that resources are now more limited. In the beginning, there was a budget of around $500,000, which Parker said has lowered considerably over the years due to poor economy.
“The way legislation was written, First Steps is supposed to be a partnership between the public and private sector,” she said, explaining that new grant opportunities will need to be sought to keep resources in Union.
“We could do more. The need is much greater than the resources right now.”
Parker’s passion for her work was apparent as she described what early childhood education actually is, as well as the various programs which foster it.
“Early childhood education is from birth to 3-4 years of age,” Parker said. “Most people think it’s 5K, but it starts much earlier than that. Research has shown that early education is vital to the success of children, and one of the best things we can do is work with parents and children up to three years old. By age three, the brain is already wired for success.”
Parker said she is proud of the childcare training First Steps has provided since 2001, meeting all DSS requirements. She said that child care workers have the most important job — besides that of the parents — relating to the child’s success in school.
Parker mentioned several successful programs in which First Steps was active. One of those was Save the Children, which is funded through a grant to provide home visitors and an after-school program held at Monarch Elementary and Foster Park Elementary during which children receive tutoring and also learn about proper nutrition and exercise.
Another program is Countdown to Kindergarten, in which 5K teachers from Union County visit five children from each of the schools to prepare them for kindergarten. First Steps provides the curriculum and tool kit.
“The program is successful because the teacher forms a relationship with both the child and the parent,” Parker said. “Once school starts, it’s easier for the teacher to talk about problems with the child and parent, and parents are more likely to attend parent/teacher conferences.”
Parker also mentioned Imagination Library, which is a partnership with United Way and the school district that provides age-appropriate books for children 5-years-old and under to read and keep before they ever go to school.
Another successful program Parker discussed was the Nurse-Family Partnership, in which a full-time RN works with first-time moms from their 28th week of pregnancy until the child is two years old. The program meets both health and educational needs, positively influencing the child’s future scholastic success.
Parker also covered some of the success stories of the program. She mentioned that First Steps once worked with a single mother through home visitation, which led her to achieving her GED and enrolling in a trade school.
Parker also brought up another single mother who also received home visits. She said the young lady went on to serve on the Union County First Steps Board of Directors at one time and is currently enrolled in nursing school.
Parker said First Steps is fortunate to have such a positive relationship with the Union County School District, and through that partnership the district has received $800,000 of extra funds for the needs of children in Union County.
Although Parker loves her work, she said she feels that it is time for retirement.
“I want more time for my grandchildren, and I want to travel more since all my relatives are about four hours away,” she said. “But I’m not leaving town, and I still have a love for early education and good things for Union County.”
Parker said she feels great about officially passing the torch on July 1 to Beth Fowler, who already has a working knowledge of Union County First Steps.
Fowler worked in the office as an intern during her junior year of college in 2004, and she served on the board of directors from 2008-2011.
“She sees the early education need,” Parker said.
Fowler said the program’s success so far, as well as future opportunities, are reasons that she pursued the position. She also said she understands the importance of the program.
“It’s a feel good job — one of those that really does make a difference,” Fowler said. “It’s very important work helping create the building blocks of a person’s whole life — impacting that in a community with so much need.”
During Fowler’s internship with First Steps in 2004, her responsibilities included going over needs assessments and reading surveys sent in by child care workers and parents regarding what they thought was still needed. She said she saw how various things could impact and change those needs.
Having worked for the Workforce Investment Board previously, Fowler was able to assess community needs from a different perspective, which she also believes will help her with her new position.
“Health issues or financial issues almost always come back to education,” she said. “And all education comes back to early education.”
Fowler also expressed why First Steps is unique.
“There is not another organization whose purpose is to make sure the community as a whole — child care workers, teachers and parents — have the tools they need before the child even gets into the school system,” Fowler said. “If we do a good job, it makes a much easier job for teachers once they get there.
As for future projects, First Steps hopes to partner with Spartanburg Community College and sponsor an Early Childhood Development 101 class at the Union County Advanced Technology Center.
For more information about Union County First Steps, call (864) 429-1748, ext. 306.