MERRILLVILLE — New research indicates children from birth through age 4 have more learning capacity than at any other time in their lives. Yet some families face everyday life challenges including hunger, homelessness and lack of transportation that limit opportunities for early childhood education.

Recognizing these issues and learning how to support struggling families and help them succeed was the focus of Friday’s first Early Childhood Symposium in Northwest Indiana at Merrillville High School, sponsored by Geminus Corp.

More than 200 people who work in the early childhood education field participated in presentations by two national experts — Oregon-based Dr. Donna M. Beegle, a mom of two Head Start children, and Kim O’Connell, pre-K program manager for Providence Public Schools in Rhode Island.

Beegle shared the life-changing actions that allowed her to move from generational, migrant-labor poverty to achieve her doctorate in educational leadership and run a successful company for 26 years.

Her family moved throughout the country picking fruits and vegetables, living in the woods, in migrant cabins and cars behind truck stops, she said. “A rat ran across my chest in the middle of the night,” Beegle recalled.

When she enrolled her first child in Head Start, Beegle said she was living in a car and pregnant. “The reason I enrolled her was so she could have friends, and she’d get to eat,” she said.

“I was the mom who arrived early to see who was messin’ with my girl. What I saw was a loving teacher, who was getting down on the floor with my daughter."

“We tend to look at what’s wrong with them,” she said about those who live “in the war zone” of generational poverty. “Poverty steals hope, confidence and self-esteem.”

Stereotypes of people living in poverty in this country have become deeply imbedded in American culture, Beegle said.

“Before our country can move forward with fighting the war on poverty, we must make a collective effort to examine personal beliefs and open our minds to new interpretations of the behavior of those struggling without basic needs,” she said.

Beegle challenged those in attendance to learn how to communicate with families who can’t read or write. “Over 90 percent of communication is nonverbal,” she said, adding that 92 percent of those who reported seeking assistance didn’t know what to do with the information they received.

“We’re the same species. We’re more alike than different. Poverty crosses race. Poverty teaches that nobody cares,” she said.

“We need to open our eyes and see the poverty. We need to fight poverty, not the families.”

The following facts were noted during the program:

  • More than 15 percent, or 43.2 million, of people live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010.
  • One in four working households in America (10.6 million families) spends more than half their pre-tax income on housing.
  • Nationally, the average welfare check for one parent and two children is $478 per month. The average disability check is $600.
  • One in five children in America goes hungry; 46 million suffer food insecurity and one-third of this group experience chronic hunger.
  • Youth living in poverty are the least likely to become educated in this nation.
  • Many people in poverty have internalized their poverty as a personal deficiency.