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'Small, But Mighty' Arizona Programs Work To Counter Childhood Poverty

By Mariana Dale, Mark Brodie
Published: Wednesday, October 2, 2019 - 3:44pm

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The Heart of Isaac Community Center backyard
Mariana Dale/KJZZ
“The most successful one so far—every Saturday is family Zumba,” Lopez said. The classes take place under this awning at the Heart of Isaac Community Center.

One in five Arizona children is growing up in a poor neighborhood.

Those are the latest statistics from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Their latest review of census data found that Arizona had improved a few percentage points from 22%, but still tied for the fifth highest rate of children living in concentrated poverty. 

The Annie E. Casey Foundation defines concentrated poverty as 30% or more of the neighborhood living at or below the poverty level. For this report, that means a family of four made $24,858 or less. 

A few more statistics

  • Nationally, African American and American Indian kids are seven times more likely to live in poor neighborhoods.
  • More than a quarter of Latino and Latina kids in Arizona live in poverty.
  • Arizona ranks highest for rural children who live in poverty at 39%.

“It’s concerning because poverty is at the root of so many other adverse experiences in childhood,” said Liz Barker Alvarez, chief policy adviser for First Things First, a statewide organization that funds health and education programs to benefit young children. 

Liz Barker Alvarez
First Things First
Liz Barker Alvarez, chief policy advisor at First Things First.

Adverse Childhood Experiences are a well-researched set of negative incidents that can affect a child’s health and behavior for the rest of their lives. 

A few examples include sexual abuse, emotional and physical neglect and household dysfunction like an incarcerated relative or family violence. The more incidents like this a child encounters, the more likely they are to experience a myriad of problems including mental health issues, alcoholism and missing work. 

NPR has a great primer on ACEs and you can even take a quiz to better understand your own experience. 

So what are organizations doing to help children living in concentrated poverty be successful? 

First Things First invests most of its program dollars (47%) in quality childcare and preschool programs. 

“For many, many parents, one of the reasons they can’t find or maintain stable employment is that they don’t have childcare that is reliable or of quality,” Barker said. 

Tempe is piloting a free and low-cost preschool programEarly results show 91% of participating parents said they were able to go back to school or work or add more hours.  

First Things First has also invested in projects in areas such as the Isaac School District in West Phoenix. 

The lobby at the Heart of Isaac Community Center
Mariana Dale/KJZZ
The lobby at the Heart of Isaac Community Center has an area for children, computers for the public to use, (not pictured) dozens of fliers with information about nearby resources and an emergency pantry.

On average, more than 90% of students in Isaac schools qualify for free and reduced price lunch. 

Parts of the district are considered a food desert because there’s not a lot of access to supermarkets that sell fresh healthy food. 

And the Arizona Republic reported the ZIP code where the district is located, 85009, had the third-highest number of children removed for child abuse and neglect in Maricopa County in 2017.

“It’s a high poverty community who, with the barriers and challenges, have become resilient and have connected and created a community of support,” said Susana Lopez, the family and community program coordinator.

I talked to her at the Heart of Isaac Community Center on 32nd Avenue just south of McDowell Road. 

It’s a bright blue building that opened a couple of years ago when the district realized its community didn’t have access to important services. 

Susana Lopez
Mariana Dale/KJZZ
Susana Lopez, family and community program coordinator at the Isaac School District.

There’s a popular Zumba class on Saturdays. There are computers people can use to apply to jobs or do homework, parenting classes and information on how to connect to healthcare and other assistance programs. 

Citrus trees in the large backyard will soon provide free fruit to the community. They've already harvested a bowl of limes from one.  

“We’re small but mighty,” Lopez said.  

She estimated about 500 people use the center each month and their classes are growing. 

On a day like Wednesday, when a local healthcare provider sets up at the center, they might see up to a hundred people. 

As Isaac started to establish the community center, they asked parent leaders to help them understand people needed. 

“The promotores have to this day been leading the work as far as what the Heart of Isaac Community Center was going to look like,” Lopez said. 

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