Great Start program works hard to make sure parents and children have a ride

Limos for toddlers?

It's a sign of the complex mix of issues facing those working for Battle Creek's improvement, that preschoolers from low-income families need rides to education and socialization activities, but their families have few safe transportation options.

Oddly, luxurious vehicles are one safe available option.

This example of one struggle to find a solution to one of many Battle Creek problems is a leaf on a branch of the big BC Vision tree. 

Since May 2015, BC Vision, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Kellogg Co.'s project for improving the city, has been working on a three-part plan to increase jobs, improve the talent pool and encourage a culture of vitality. The plan is a result of business, government and community members joining together. 

"What BC Vision has helped to create are opportunities for public/private partnerships to form," says Megan Russell Johnson, program officer at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

But, "it is really much bigger than just that."

BC Vision has "been bringing together residents and different nonprofit organizations, and really reaching out to the community as broadly as possible to figure out what people's priorities are for the community, particularly related to jobs, talent and culture of vitality," she says.

That talent branch -- actually, more of a talent pipeline --  is working on getting BC’s offspring from kindergarten to college to career. 

Susan Clark, co-chair of BC Vision's kindergarten readiness action team, is also co-ordinator for the Calhoun Great Start Collaborative . She's long faced the problem of how to get preschool children of families with no transportation to important socialization and education events.

Great Start usually sends cabs to families with no transportation. Sometimes the cabs are very late. They can have ads on them that aren't family-appropriate. And there's the safety issue -- cabs don't provide child seats. Kids end up riding on parents' laps. 

When Great Start found out that cabs weren't going to be available for the Winter Celebration, happening on a busy night during the holiday season this past December, Clark turned to Courtesy Limousine Service.
Clark had been discussing the need for transportation with Courtesy owner Denise Kendall. In the end, Great Start got a discount on the rides. "We're two and a half times" what Great Start would normally pay for cab service," Kendall says, "but I said we'd crunch some more numbers and get the job done."

Courtesy sent Lincoln Town Cars and SUVs to pick up families for the event. Great Start provided child seats to the limo service and instructed drivers on how to use them. 

Parents told Clark, "That pulled up in my driveway and I thought, wait, is that for me?!?" Four-year-olds were strapped safely into lush sedan interiors. Parents were greeted and had the doors open for them. 

"They said the staff treated them with so much respect... they were surprised. It was such a good experience for them."

Kendall heard back from her drivers: "They all had a good time.... It was almost like a special prom night," she says. "If you would meet any one of my drivers, you would know that they would treat the CEO of Kellogg the same as they would that parent and that child." 

Getting kids a ride to a Great Start

Great Start is devoted to early childhood development and kindergarten readiness. A large part of its efforts is centered on playgroups where youngsters socialize with other kids and learn from educational experiences in music, arts and crafts, and through visits by Binder Park Zoo animals, and the like.   

Great Start is not just for the kids. It's vital for parents to be involved in these events, and in their children's development, Clark says. Parents learn about parenting, how to interact in healthy ways with their children, and bond with other low-income families who face similar challenges. 

For their children's and the community's sake there is a need to "have parents more informed, engaged and empowered,"  Clark says.

For those with no vehicles lack of transportation is a barrier to that necessary engagement. "We need to remove the barriers so that parents can participate in programs and services that help their children get ready for school."

Preparing preschoolers for Battle Creek's talent pipeline is also the Clark's role as she works with BC Vision.

"BC Vision is helping us to really dig down and identify gaps that are preventing families from financial security and from insuring their kids are ready for school, and transportation has been identified across the board as one of the barriers that families experience," she says.

One might picture the movers and shakers in Battle Creek's major industries and city governance dominating these discussions, but BC Vision team members recognize that they also need to "get the community's voice in this whole thing," Clark says.

W. K. Kellogg's Johnson confirms that parents need to be involved not only in plans for their children, "but really all other priority areas of BC Vision."

BC Vision wants families involved in the discussions about their children's futures, Clark says. "That has been the conversation, and we do have many residents, families who have participated in BC Vision activities."

But, once again, lack of transportation to get them to these discussions is an issue. "And if transportation is a barrier to folks participating, we'd like a partner to come up with some solutions to that."

Kids' cabs to kids' limos?

Great Start would like to use the Courtesy Limousine service more, Clark says. Even after a discount, the limos "cost a little more than cabs cost," Clark acknowledges. She's in negotiations to figure out how to finance the service, looking for alternative funds, "so that no matter what the event... we can work to ensure the safety and respect for these families." 

She knows she's got to be careful with funds. "But when you look at what you are paying for, and thinking about the message we're trying to send to our families about safety for their children -- it almost seems like we don't have a choice in the matter. "

Clark says that Kendall’s heart is in the right place. “She serves executives at the Kellogg Foundation, and she's interested in serving all of the families in our community, and that's what's so amazing to me." 

"I have a fleet, and these people don't even have a vehicle," Kendall says. 

Kendall's fleet wouldn't exist if it weren't for an idea she came across in the mid-'90s. Then, as a mother doing daycare work, she'd read that there was a cab service for children in the Grand Rapids area. 

That day, she decided to start Kids' Cab, in Battle Creek. Using a small fleet of vans, she served about 55 kids a day, getting them to school events, sports practice, ballet classes and elsewhere when parents couldn't. 

It was rewarding work, but she discovered that "the people who need that service don't have the money." Her customers were either people who couldn't afford it but desperately needed it or people who could afford it and used it for the convenience. 

She loved the job but decided to sell Kids' Cab. It eventually went out of business.

The experience drove home for Kendall the fact that transportation is simply beyond the reach of many in Battle Creek. "There are just not a lot of options out there. The city talks about it, local churches talk about it, they've put some programs together. But it just ends up not working, I'm assuming, because of the expense of it all," she says.

Clark says that she and Kendall will "sit down and see what we can do to make this a more permanent partnership." 

Mark Wedel has been a Kalamazoo-based freelance journalist since 1992. 

Photos by Susan Andress

Support for this story is provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.