Our Littlest 'Strangers' Need Everyone's Help

New statistics on the state of Memphis and Shelby children tell us that assisting disadvantaged kids is the right, moral and smart thing to do.

Why do people help perfect strangers? That question really hit me last week. I was driving on Airways Boulevard at Lamar when a young couple in an old car rhythmically motioned with downward-pointing fingers, like John Travolta dancing in "Saturday Night Fever." These strangers were telling me that my back tire was quickly going flat.

I slowly turned into a parking lot and a truck parked next to me. A young stranger in a work shirt hopped out of his employer's truck and quickly offered help. In just five minutes he removed my flat tire, installed my spare and smiled. I offered him money for his time and trouble, but he refused it.

Two times in a row, people helped a perfect stranger. Why? They got nothing in return but perhaps the good feeling that they did something nice. Maybe they hoped that someday a stranger might help them if they have car trouble. Or maybe they just felt our city would be much better off if everyone helped one another. Possibly their religion or their parents taught them to love neighbors as themselves.

These thoughts about strangers helping strangers made me think more about the eye-opening statistics in The Urban Child Institute's new 2011 Data Book: The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County.

We would all be much better off if everyone looked out for our youngest and most defenseless citizens. This is true whether you have kids at home or not. Not only is helping disadvantaged kids the right and moral thing to do, but it is also the smart thing to do.

Joining hands to support young children helps them, you and our local economy -- now and later. Kids are the foundation for our future workforce. They are our future voters. They will be the workers who pay payroll taxes into Social Security and Medicare for retirees, disabled citizens and survivors of workers who have died.

We need to protect babies during pregnancy, and it is just as important to protect and nurture kids in the early years after birth -- when their brains and senses are developing quickly.

Through no fault of their own, many children are unplanned and destined to live in poverty, especially those born into single-parent households. By simple chance you could have been born into these circumstances.

A very large number of our newborns and toddlers are experiencing turmoil, violence, toxins and fragile relationships that harm their brain development and learning. Nearly half of the kids in Memphis and Shelby County need extra help to overcome economic instability. Without assistance, many will live in homes and neighborhoods where they have slim chances of becoming well-educated, employed, productive citizens who will build a stronger Mid-South.

Early stress, poor nutrition and neglect often stem from the extreme poverty in our region. The data book shows that poverty is still growing. As many as 40 percent of Memphis youngsters live in poverty, compared with 35 percent just six years before. With the stroke of a pen, a parent can lose his or her job, especially in this recession. It could happen to you. If it does, you too will want some empathy and maybe some extra help.

Investments in education and health programs to help small children and young parents can pay big dividends to the families, their neighborhoods and the entire community. Prekindergarten education and programs like Early Head Start can help thousands of small children be ready to learn when they enter elementary school. Parenting classes and home visits to new moms and babies can also significantly improve the lives and safety of kids and their families.

We can really make a big difference if we are willing to do more for our region's tiniest citizens. We can get started by being well informed about where our efforts, donations, volunteer time and tax dollars are best spent. The new 2011 Data Book is a great tool to learn about the state of children in Memphis and Shelby County. These little strangers might be across town, in child care centers, in your neighborhood or even in your place of worship. These children are our future and the foundation for economic growth. A little kindness to these small strangers will go a long way.

Denise Bollheimer is president and CEO of Bollheimer Consulting and a founding board member of Healthy Memphis Common Table.

This is one in a series of monthly guest columns on the importance of public/private investment in early childhood. To download a copy of the 2011 Data Book: The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County, visit The Urban Child Institute at theurbanchildinstitute.org.

Originally appeared in The Commercial Appeal at http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2011/aug/14/guest-column-our-littlest-strangers-need-help