This year's "Voices for Children" advocacy award winners – awarded in June in Seattle by the statewide, nonpartisan child advocacy group the Children's Alliance – highlight ordinary Washingtonians who have worked to make the lives of children better. Below are the three 2012 award winners.
John Stephens remembers well the day in 1995 when the Swinomish tribe, near La Conner, broke ground on a permanent dental health clinic.
Chairman Robert Joe, Sr., who has since passed away, turned and said, "Do you know what this means? This means my grandchildren and great-grandchildren won't end up like me" – and he pulled out his full set of dentures.
"We are overcoming generations of poor health and poor experiences – experiences in which you are in pain, you go to the dentist and you have your teeth pulled," says Stephens, Swinomish programs administrator.
Oral health in the Swinomish community has improved a lot over the past 17 years, but the clinic is unable to meet the demand. To do more, the tribe has pushed to introduce licensed dental practitioners in Washington state. The new, mid-level providers (who are trained to do relatively simple procedures and charge less than a dentist) would help increase access to routine dental care and preventive services for children and families statewide.
Washington's low-income children are 44 percent more likely to have experienced tooth decay by third grade than middle- or high-income children. Children of color are 18 percent more likely to be coping with tooth decay by the same age than others.
Although the licensed dental practitioner bill championed by the Children's Alliance in the 2012 legislative session failed to become law, the tribe pledges to continue the fight.
One is a mom whose son was waitlisted for Head Start, a program she knew would help her child get ready for kindergarten. Another lost her state child care assistance because of a paperwork glitch, forcing her to take her preschooler to work with her. Both of these parents channeled their frustration into advocacy as Parent Ambassadors.
Each year, 20 parents whose children are enrolled in Head Start sign up to receive advocacy training. This year's Parent Ambassadors corps championed the High-Quality Early Learning Act of 2012, which would expand preschool access. Moms, dads and kids showed up en masse to speak up for the bill each time it was considered (lawmakers ultimately rejected the measure). They also descended on Olympia at a crucial time for the Working Connections Child Care program, which helps low-income families pay for child care while they work, backing up supportive lawmakers in the House even as the Senate threatened serious cuts. In the end, the Parent Ambassadors' tenacity not only helped protect the program from further cuts, but also helped get it restored to more than 2,000 working parents who'd been cut off in 2010.
The children who come here from Jiji Jally's homeland of the Marshall Islands are refugees, fleeing a paradise poisoned by more than a decade of nuclear bomb testing by the United States.
"Parents bring their kids here because they want them to have the care, food and education they need to grow up and succeed," Jally said, adding: "When you see any hungry kid, you can't stand it."
That's why the mother of six joined the Children's Alliance's campaign to save State Food Assistance, a program that offers a lifeline for documented immigrants who don't qualify for federal food stamps. The state program feeds about 12,500 Washington children from some 160 countries.
Because their islands are now so toxic, Marshallese children and their families have the right to live and work in the U.S. But, they can't get food stamps or any other federal assistance; many rely on State Food Assistance.
The program was cut drastically in the 2011 state budget. When legislators this year threatened to end the program entirely, Jally took a high-profile role in the Children's Alliance campaign. Jally testified in Olympia, spoke at press conferences and rallied other members of her community to the cause.
"It was hard to tell everyone ‘We need to be there. It's very important.' It was hard to explain it and get folks out," she says. It was hard, but Jally did it. The stories she and others shared helped ensure thousands of children would not go hungry.
To learn more about these advocates, visit www.childrensalliance.org/news-events/voices-children-2012-advocacy-awards-luncheon.