About 8 years ago, in Grundy County, Tennessee, the Yale Child Study Center and Scholastic worked with Sewanee: The University of the South, Tracy City Elementary School, and other local partners to create Discover Together, a multi-generational system of programs, including a family co-op and a summer camp that supports families through literacy and storytelling.
The approach in Grundy County served as inspiration for Discover Together Brownsville in Brooklyn, one of the first initiatives launched under the Yale Child Study Center-Scholastic Collaborative for Child & Family Resilience, which is focused on studying how literacy and health are connected.
Karen Baicker, Executive Director of the Collaborative, sat down with two of her colleagues on the ground in Grundy County to talk about how the Discover Together programs are supporting local families today.
Below is Karen’s Q&A with Emily Partin, Director of the Discover Together Family Co-Op and Camp Discover, and Sherry Guyear, a teacher who has been with Discover Together from its early years.
This interview has been modified slightly for clarity.
KB: How did you identify a need for support in Grundy County, TN?
SG: We had so many children in situations where their basic needs were not being met. We felt there was a real need to build resilience in those children, and to let them to know that there are people they can connect with outside of school.
And we’ve seen that happen. Kids who started with Camp Discover when they were in second grade have stayed with us through the last year they could participate, and now they’re coming back to help us and support younger students in the program. They have new insight into the world they didn’t have before, just from the places we’ve taken them through the camp.
EP: When we first started, we thought there might be a need to have a young group of first-, second-, third-, and fourth-graders, to teach them a little bit about the community. But then we found out that they didn’t want to leave us, so we started a middle-age group, and then an eighth-grade group. And now we’ve got kids that have gone through all of those years and are back as high school students to help.
KB: Why do you think kids want to continue on and experience Camp Discover year after year?
SG: I think it’s the relationships. They’ve built relationships with us. These kids know they’re cared about. And they know that it’s something fun to do—places to go, food to eat. It’s something to do in the summer that we’ve been really needing for a long time.
KB: How do you think the community has changed since Camp Discover?
SG: We didn’t see the kids participating in school field trips that really connected them to their past, and to the history that we have here. Since we started taking them on local field trips through Camp Discover and teaching them the history of the area, we’ve seen the schools begin to get interested too. Local organizations such as the Friends of South Cumberland State Park are now helping us to develop those programs, so that we have them for all grade levels in the schools.
For example, very few of our children had any idea that we were a part of the Civil Rights Movement. Grundy County was basically the training station for that. They are just blown away when we take them to local historical sites and show them the pictures from that time. It’s so exciting to them, to know that this place has a special meaning for the whole country, for the world.
When we go into the state parks, our students are amazed to learn about how Grundy County is home to one of the most diverse collections of plants and animals in the world. Not just in the United States, but in the world! And that’s been something that’s given them a lot of pride.
Since we started Discover Together, and I go to the state parks on my own time, I now see these children with their families more and more. They’re taking their families back to these places and telling them the stories about them. So we see a lot more connectedness, and people in the community getting out and doing things that we didn’t see before.
KB: Camp Discover is a wonderful resource for local kids. What led to the next step, the creation of the Family Co-Op?
EP: We started out with Camp Discover, but we knew there was also a great need for support among parents and caregivers. So we created a two-generation model, where the parents and caregivers come to the gatherings with their children, listen to stories, and participate in literacy activities. We wanted to do it two days a week, two-and-a-half hours at a time.
We started out small. It was a totally new concept—there weren’t even local churches doing Mother’s Day Out programs yet. We started out with three or four families, but then we began to build. Now we’re in ourseventh year!
KB: What does the Family Co-Op look like now?
SG: The program runs two days a week, for two hours. Parents are welcome to participate in the gathering with their child one day, and then to use the other day as a Mother’s Day Out program, leaving their child with us as they run errands. But usually our parents don’t take one of the days off, because they don’t want to miss anything. They like being with the other parents and learning things, being with their children, and seeing what everybody’s doing. Most days, we don’t leave after two hours. The parents stay around, talk, and ask questions. They’re still looking at books or reading books, or their kids are still dressed up in play costumes and don’t want to take them off.
We now have run two different sessions, with 15–17 families in each group. And we always have a waiting list. We even have people expecting babies who are planning to bring them when they’re born.
EP: It’s a birth to five program. All ages experience the program at the same time, doing the same activities, and several of them are sibling groups. So that means we have access to the same parents sometimes up to six or seven years.
KB: What are you hoping families and children will take away from Discover Together? And have you seen any difference as the Co-Op children enter elementary school?
SG: I’ve seen that parents who have worked with us in the Family Co-Op feel more confident when they go into school, to ask questions, talk to the teacher, and share concerns, because they’ve been able to talk to us. We’ve had interviews all the way through, and parent group meetings, so that they’re very comfortable. While they may not be comfortable in the beginning, they start to become very comfortable as time goes on.
When I think back to the beginning of the program, I think the smartest thing was saying, “We want local teachers. We want local people working.” That was the best thing we could have ever done, because our parents already had confidence in us. I now have a grandchild of a child I taught. They already know us, so they open up and they talk. They tell us things that are important to them. They begin to be comfortable with what's going on, and we begin to be a family together. And the families become really close. They plan outings and playdates together. It begins here, but it just keeps going on.
EP: That was one of the theories of change that we had—that if we could bring some folks together who might have otherwise been isolated, they would begin to build those support systems outside of the Family Co-Op and across the community. And that has happened, and we’re really pleased with that.
We have seen a wide variety of issues. I know we’ve had a couple of parents who have gone through some postpartum depression, and have had to deal with that. And a lot of anxiety around developmental issues...
SG: Life-threatening illnesses…
EP: …and death.
SG: Yes. The death of a mother, with three children. So we’ve been through just about anything you could think of. But they’ve pulled together, and they’ve supported each other. There’s really been that camaraderie.
KB: How do you encourage that camaraderie to grow, throughout the Grundy County community and beyond?
SG: I think we’re already seeing a lot of that happen. I think that our parents are sharing what they’ve learned from the Family Co-Op, or we wouldn't have doubled in size like we have, and we wouldn’t have a waiting list. And we hope that community and school leaders will help in spreading the message of how much Discover Together makes a difference in school readiness.
EP: Until that time, we’ll be staying in touch with the parents we have. Those circles of influence they begin to have, on their friends, on their family. We’ll see how it can mushroom, whether or not there’s a formal program in other communities, but a supportive network grounded in literacy nonetheless.
To learn more about Discover Together and the latest news from the Collaborative, visit: medicine.yale.edu/childstudy/scholasticcollab/
Photo courtesy of Discover Together Grundy County.