Though considered one of the wealthiest counties in North Carolina, poverty in Orange County is alarmingly high.
Orange County children living in poverty rose from 15.5 percent in 2010 to 18.5 percent in 2012, according to the American Communities Survey. While that increase was not statistically significant, it is disturbing, given that the median income for Orange County is $57,261, according to the U.S. Census.
“It’s pretty hard to believe that 15 to 20 percent of our children are living in poverty,” said Allison Young, health informatics manager for the Orange County Health Department. “So that’s really illustrating a big disparity in wealth.”
Adverse child experiences, or ACEs, can increase the likelihood that a child contracts diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes as an adult, according to a study by the CDC. Those adverse experiences include abuse, neglect, divorce, mental illness, substance abuse and other challenges.
“Children living in poverty have a higher percentage of these adverse childhood experiences,” said Stacie Shelp, department public information officer. “And those are a significant indicator of long-term chronic disease rate.”
The health department launched Family Success Alliance, a program that helps children from low-income families prepare for school, in response to these poverty rates, said Meredith McMonigle, Family Success Alliance project coordinator. Family Success Alliance was modeled after Harlem Children’s Zone and Promise Neighborhoods. The program just completed its second year.
The initiative includes a four-week kindergarten readiness program that runs over the summer to prepare kids for their first year in school. Five parents also run a Zone Navigator Program to serve as a support system for those families.
Shelp said a major goal of the project is to prevent the development of chronic diseases like obesity.
In Orange County, 14.1 percent of preschool children are obese, compared with 13.6 percent in North Carolina and 12.2 percent in the U.S., according to the Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance System.
“The new sign of poverty and hunger is obesity,” Shelp said. “And that’s because of what you can afford to eat.”
Family Success Alliance will start a free 10-week class for parents with children 3 to 6 years old to learn about child development techniques. Part of that curriculum will be learning healthy eating habits and eating provided healthy meals.
Shelp said the program is aiming to teach families “how to engage with children in a positive manner that improves their mental health and well being.”
Kindergarten is the first time many of those children have been in a school environment. Kimberly Fearrington, a kindergarten teacher at New Hope Elementary, said “a lack of readiness” was the biggest struggle she’d seen low-income students face in the classroom.
In the first year, children from 66 families participated in kindergarten readiness programs at New Hope Elementary, Carrboro Elementary and Frank Porter Graham Elementary.
Students went from 9 percent proficient to 67 percent proficient. At New Hope Elementary, students improved from 0 percent to 63 percent.
Fearrington has seen the effects of the program firsthand.
“After the four weeks, students were more socially and academically comfortable, more open to participate in group conversations, and a couple of the students showed growth in the way that they responded to new and challenging situations,” Fearrington said in an email.
The Orange County Health Department teamed up with Frank Porter Graham Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill for an additional report on the effectiveness of the program. That report is expected to come out sometime this fall.
McMonigle said if the program is successful, it could be replicated.
“We certainly would love to see it spread throughout North Carolina,” McMonigle said. “And I think we would make ourselves available to other communities.”