What began as a simple but strong desire to assist a community in the Tower Road corridor just west of I-75 has evolved into an initiative to help all of the children in Alachua County.
Dorothy Benson and Dorothy Thomas are instrumental in the creation and success of the Southwest Advocacy Group (SWAG), a grassroots community-based organization established in early 2010 to help the residents in the 32607 zip code.
Joining forces with Partnership for Strong Families (PFSF), the SWAG Family Resource Center celebrated its grand opening in 2012, and has been going strong ever since.
Benson and Thomas are passionate about Alachua County’s children – and families. The two recently sat down with HOME magazine for a spirited interview, often finishing each other’s sentences.
“The resource center is the first piece of the puzzle. It’s wildly successful,” said Dorothy Thomas, a volunteer SWAG co-chair. “The community embraces it, it does really well, and it’s really starting to make a positive impact.”
Since opening, the SWAG Family Resource Center has had more than 55,000 visits.
Directly across the street from the resource center is the second piece of the puzzle – the SW Health Clinic.
“It’s a full service, medical, dental and pediatrics clinic,” said Dorothy Benson, a SWAG co-founder. “We’ve seen about 600 people a month and it’s making a big difference to the community.”
To establish the clinic, SWAG partnered with
the Alachua County Health Department, the Alachua County Commissioners and numerous private entities.
“SWAG was the glue that brought them all together,” Benson said.
“When we started out we were a very small, grass-roots group, taking moms down to the county commission meetings,” Benson added. “The county commissioners were our first and best partners. They got behind it. We didn’t go to them saying, ‘We want you to do this, there are issues in the community,’ we went to them saying, ‘We want you to partner with us.’”
The partnership paid off. Alachua County bought the buildings that were in foreclosure and SWAG helped raise the money to fix the resource center.
“Then we raised the money to help renovate the clinic building,” Thomas said. “Now we’ve raised the money to build the CHILD Center from the ground up.”
The CHILD (Children’s Health Imagination Learning and Development) Center is SWAG’s newest project. The CHILD Center will educate, support and coach families and caregivers so they can be their children’s first teachers. To that end, SWAG has formed a partnership with the UF Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies, O2B Kids and a network of other service providers.
“The Resource Center serves everybody from 0 to 100, but there is no child care,” Thomas said. “There are some early childhood development partners that come in and provide programming, but it’s not the same as a child care center. It is designed to be a resource center where adults can bring their children and do joint activities with their children, but there are not child care workers in there.”
The facility offers a wide variety of services from computer and internet access to books, games and toys for children. Special programs include summer programs, after-school tutoring, health and exercise programs and monthly community dinners, according to its website.
Thomas said the CHILD Center will have three components.
“It’s going to have the true early education piece like any preschool would,” she said. “It’s going to have a family education piece to engage the families and make them their children’s best advocate, and then it’s going to have a professional development arm that we’re calling the model demonstration center, so experts from the Zucker Center can model and develop best practices and then take them out to Alachua County as a whole.”
The CHILD Center will also offer quality childcare to caregivers that need to go to work, school, or attend other self-improvement programs. With a comprehensive early education curriculum, children can learn in a safe and healthy environment that provides nutritious meals and early identification of learning issues. For caregivers, the center provides direct programming on topics such as parenting,
safety and nutrition.
Thomas said that any childcare provider in Alachua County will be able to come and benefit from the resources developed in the center, through training, internship and apprentice programs.
When Benson and Thomas first began looking into the CHILD Center they discovered that there are many needs in early education that aren’t being met.
“We started realizing it needed to be bigger than an early learning center,” Thomas said. “That was the idea that started what is now a Children’s Services Advisory Board.”
Thomas said they realized it isn’t just the children in the SWAG neighborhood that are unprepared for school – it is a county-wide problem.
“We, as a county, need to put a system in place to keep these kids from falling through the cracks and to get them ready to go to kindergarten,” she said. “And that was the initial vision that started us down this path – [advocating for the establishment of] the Children’s Services Advisory Board.”
The Children’s Services Advisory Board is funded annually through the county commission, answers to the commission, and serves only children from 0 to 5 years of age.
“Our BIG vision is to make that a permanent entity – the Children’s Services Council – that has to be passed by voter referendum and will serve all kids,” Benson said. “That’s what’s coming up. The vote will be in November of 2018.”
Benson said their mission for 2018 is to invest in and support the children of Alachua County, and by doing so, the community will prosper.
“County Commissioner Ken Cornell has mentioned this: What would our community look like if we had done this 20 years ago?” she said. “Could we have started getting kids ready for kindergarten 20 years ago? What will our community look like in 20 years if we don’t do it? And what might it look like if we do – if we get more kids ready for school?”
The current Children’s Services Advisory Board is funded by the county commission, which oversees funding for programs and services that improve the lives of children and their families, Benson said. It provides services for children prenatal to age 5, including home visits for new mothers by a registered nurse.
“No mom goes home from the hospital wanting to struggle as a parent,” Thomas said. “The thing that’s nice about the RN, if there’s something lacking, they will have the resources to hook them into the existing programs.”
“There are so many of these services that exist that are not utilized because people don’t know about them,” Thomas added. “And we’d like to expand what we’re doing for prenatal to 5, but we would also like to serve beyond 0 to 5 – and include all children, from 0 to 18.”
“Dorothy and I could probably go home and sleep well at night because we knew we were instrumental in helping bring the funding for a collaborative, comprehensive system of care for children, from prenatal to 5,” Benson said, turning to Thomas. “But she won’t let it go!”
So what happens to children after the age of 5?
“How do you tell a mom your four-year-old can get these services, but your other child is 7 and so, sorry, we don’t have a system,” Benson said.
“Our husbands said, ‘You guys haven’t done enough, you’ve got to get busy for the older kids,’” Thomas added with a laugh.
To that end, their goal is to pass a voter referendum this November to create and fund an Independent Children’s Services Council in Alachua County through a half-mill for children.
“This is a long-term vision for Alachua County’s children,” Thomas said. “We always talk about strategic planning in roads and in businesses and every facet of life, but we really need a long-term plan for our children, and this is a way to accomplish that.”
There is already a half-cent sales tax for infrastructure for public schools on the ballot for 2018, but this infrastructure money cannot fund programs, Thomas said.
“Although we believe the facilities issue is a very important one because you can’t have a school without a sound roof,” Thomas said, “this [Independent Children’s Council] reaches kids during the times that they are not in school.”
According to childrensmovementflorida.org, “Every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood programs can save society at least $7 in costs associated with more prisons, more police and prosecution, more remedial programs and higher health care obligations.”
So, investing in our youth, Benson said, will help the community’s economy.
“Ultimately, what we’d like to do through this ‘cradle to career system’ is provide quality prep for technical school and college and have people successfully enter the workforce,” Benson said. “That is what is going to be the gamechanger for the community’s economy, getting more people who are able to be successful in the workforce.”
“We always say you should vote for this regardless of which camp you are in,” Thomas said. “If you are a warm and fuzzy, I-want-to-do-things-for-our-children type of person, this is an obvious solution. But, it also makes sense even if you don’t care about children’s issues and you just want to stop wasting money on retentions and juvenile justice…”
“It’s really a no-brainer,” Benson said, finishing her sentence. “We really believe that this is the right thing to do for Alachua County’s children and families.”
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Photography by Allison Durham