As a minister who works to strengthen communities, I’ve become convinced that what fundamentally ails us as a society is rooted in the neglect of children, especially at the start of their lives.

Ours could hardly be considered a poor county, yet 17% of our children are living in poverty and almost half of our students qualify for free or reduced-cost school lunches. The national statistics on childhood poverty are worse. Yet the bigger related problem may be the poverty of individualized care and attention that our children are receiving.

In order to be successful in life, kids need to know they can be. They need to learn who they are and what they are called to do in the world, and they need to develop the perseverance to see it through. That can only happen with the encouragement, insights and experiences offered by the adults in their lives. The more the better.

Through volunteering at Children First, Sarasota County’s Head Start provider, I’ve learned that this societal problem is not primarily about the individual failings of parents. It’s about a changing economy, growing inequity and fewer adults in kids’ lives. The struggling parents I know want nothing more than to be the very best parents they can be, but many are fighting to survive, often by themselves, while working or going to school full-time.

This is why when a child is enrolled at Children First, parents or other caregivers become part of our family too. They are provided the wrap-around support to become their child’s best teacher, while also receiving the help they need to achieve their own goals.

Our parents support one another like an extended family. They’re invited to take leadership roles, and through the Families First Institute they’re offered classes to unlock their own potential along with their kids’.

While parent engagement and support has always been a component of the Head Start model, Children First has been a leader among agencies in experimenting with how to do it in deeper and more effective ways. Now, in an act of far-sighted philanthropy, Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation has awarded Children First the largest private gift in its 58-year history, a six-year, $1,2 million transformational grant that will double the capacity of the Families First Institute, add family advocates and provide specialized help for parents in achieving their vocational goals.

As we move into this season of giving, remember that what kids need most is our love and care. Maybe you’d like to help infants discover their first words or help preschoolers learn to work together on projects at Children First. You might want to mentor middle schoolers through Take Stock in Children or help at-risk high school students develop life plans through the Education Foundation of Sarasota County.

You might just choose to be a trusted friend to the kids next door.

How should you and I invest this one life we are given? We couldn’t do better than to invest it in the wild and precious lives of our kids. After all, the future depends on them.

To read the article on the Herald-Tribune’s website, please click here!