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Local agencies struggle with kids' poverty

Montezuma County agencies are working to reverse generational poverty, but a recent study shows that challenges remain.

More children in Montezuma County slipped into poverty and faced greater risks to their well-being in 2012, according to a study by the Children's Campaign released March 24.

The data show 32 percent of local children lived in poverty in 2012 compared with 26 percent the year before. This was the highest child poverty rate out of the state's 25 largest counties.

Other concerning trends included the increased rate of births to teen moms from 15 to 19 years old. From 2011 to 2012, the rate increased from 49.9 per 1,000 to 52 per 1,000. In 2000, the rate was 17.5 teen births per 1000.

Breaking generational poverty is key to turning around negative trends seen in the county, such as the high teen birth rate, said Vangi McCoy, director of the Montelores Early Childhood Council.

"Poverty truly impacts every other area of the childs' life," she said.

The Piñon Project Family Resource Center has several programs to address causes of poverty.

But Piñon's executive director, Kellie Willis, knows it will be a slow journey for the community.

"The basic statistics will start to look better, but it's going to be slow trend upwards," she said.

Reaching teens

The Piñon Project started youth programs in March 2012 after another agency closed its doors. The project expanded services from mentoring and restorative justice for teens with run-ins with law enforcement, to school-based programs. The program now offers a before-and-after-school program at Cortez Middle School and summer school mentoring for elementary students.

Staff try to address issues such as low self-esteem and depression among students. By addressing the root causes of risky behavior, the Piñon Project hopes to prevent activities such as underage drinking and drug abuse, Willis said.

The Piñon Project has been proactive about expanding youth services by meeting with school administration regularly and actively recruiting mentors, said Kelly Unrein, youth program director.

Last year, the Piñon Project reached 146 children and teens. This year, the project expects that number to double.

Mentoring is one of the most powerful ways to reach teens, Unrein said.

Students are referred to the mentoring program through probation programs, school and many other sources. Currently, there are 68 students involved in mentoring.

"Many face significant challenges in their homes like poverty, single parent home, histories of abuse or neglect, and recent signs/symptoms of depression," Unrein said.

To meet the needs of teen parents, the project also started offering once-a-year after-school classes for young parents at the Cortez high school and would like to expand the program, she said.

"We noticed there were very young parents trying to stay in school, and there was very little support for those parents," Willis said.

Reaching families

To bring families out of poverty, the Piñon Project works with families to break the cycle of living in crisis, said Lynn Soukup, the families coordinator.

The Piñon Project contracts with the department of social services to provide classes for those who qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which is the modern form of welfare.

These intensive classes take place four mornings a week and address issues that prevent success like mental health and domestic violence. The classes also teach budgeting, parenting and communication skills among other things.

But one of the most important factors that help someone break out of generational poverty is making a friend that is in the middle class, said Soukup.

"Probably the most powerful and sustaining thing that they can get is a relationship with somebody that isn't in their circumstances," she said.

Early education

The county also struggles in education. More than half of all Montezuma fourth-graders were not proficient reading in 2012, the data show.

Students who can't read proficiently by fourth grade are much more likely to drop out, said McCoy.

Montezuma-Cortez School District has underperformed on state required assessments for the past four years.

In January, district administrators told The Cortez Journal that the one of the main challenges to meeting the state standards is kindergartners who come to school unprepared to learn.

About half the preschool students in the county are in an early childhood learning center, said McCoy. There is much evidence that children who go to a quality early childhood center do better in school, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

All the centers in the county have received quality ratings from the state, though only about 10 percent of the centers statewide have been rated, McCoy said. These ratings measure learning environment, family partnerships, staff training and education and student-to-teacher ratio.

The council also tries to reach family, friends and neighbors who are caring for young children through trainings and other events. This is necessary, in part, because even if every parent in the county wanted to place their child in preschool, there are not enough centers to hold them.

"There is a lot of really, really great work going on in the community that is not yet showing itself in the data," McCoy said.

It can take 10 years for the data to start showing improvements, she said.

Economic reality

Without economic revival in the county, breaking poverty trends is tough.

Most of the jobs in the county are service-related and to pay all the bills it can mean working three minimum wage jobs, Willis said.

"The economic climate definitely contributes to the challenge that we face," Willis said.

Get involved

The Pinon Project is in need of mentors. Call: 564-1195

The Montelores Early Childhood Council is holding the annual Early Childhood Fair April 26 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the County Annex and it will feature all kinds of free health screenings.


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