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Starfish group leads charge for Inkster families

Helping vulnerable children all across Metro Detroit is the goal of Starfish Family Services, but the Inkster-based nonprofit decidedly recent it needed to go local with its work – like right outside the door local.

Of Inkster’s 26,000 residents, about 1,500 children under the age of 5 are considered high-risk, according to an assessment done by Data Driven Detroit at the behest of Starfish.

Those results, said Starfish CEO Ann Kalass, put Inkster at the top of the agency’s priority list.

“Part of what we decided was we need to, in our own back yard with our own neighbors, think about some more kind of comprehensive and intensive services and working a partnership with Inkster stakeholders,” Kalass explained.

Marijata Daniel-Echols, the vice president of early childhood policy and program, said Starfish has deployed a full-service model to address Inkster’s needs, including preschool and infant toddler programs, parenting classes, literacy classes, shelters and counseling for young children and their families.

With aid from the Kresge Foundation, Starfish was able to devise an Inkster-specific strategy for “all Inkster children to start school ready to succeed.”

Daniel-Echols said Starfish staffers are “looking at the programs we have and paying closer attention to what portion of the people we are servicing with our existing programs are Inkster residents.”

“So part of it is, with our existing programs, looking more carefully at the percentage of residents in Inkster who are using them and trying to up those numbers,” she added.

Through a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Starfish is thinking about “a community Inkster based strategy in ways that we’re working with a range of Inkster stakeholders, whether it is the ministerial alliance, the Inkster Task Force, Inkster Public Schools, Westwood Community Schools, Oakwood Hospital, the senior group or the various block clubs working to have common understanding of what we all mean when we say all Inkster children are ready to succeed,” Daniel-Echols said.

Though Starfish is just in the beginning stages of their Inkster strategy, its Family Literacy Movement for children and their families is well under way.

“We have a family literacy coalition that is not just Starfish, but it’s a lot of our Inkster partners who are coming together to decide what would a family literacy movement in Inkster look like and how are we together going to put on activities to provide services to promote literacy in Inkster,” said Daniel-Echols.

The literacy movement will have a Reading Rally, its first event, on Nov. 17 at the Inkster Public Library. Tanya Upthegrove, the community collaboration manager at Starfish who is spearheading the literacy movement, said the event is “designed to have various interactive stations for attendees to participate in various readings and related activities.

“We want to get parents engaged in playing a role and promoting literacy. So making sure that the children have access to reading materials and are engaged in different activities throughout the community that promote literacy,” said Upthegrove.

Crystal Givens sees both sides of Starfish's efffort, as a mother of two boys and as Starfish's volunteer coordinator:

"From a parent perspective, their focus on early childhood education is magnificent. From an employee standpoint, we all work together for one common cause. We have several different programs and several different departments but it’s clear when come through the door that everybody and every department is trying to make a difference in the lives of children and their families.

"My children have warm teachers who are really concerned about them, their family life, their home life and what goes on with them and not just being warm bodies in the classroom. Anything and everything they are a part of our family."

Although Starfish is aware that it will never reach every child in Inkster, CEO Kalass said it will be able to “help create a really well integrated system of support that listens to and meets the needs of families in our community.”

Taylor Trammell is the 2012-13 Center for Michigan journalism student fellow. She is pursuing a journalism degree at Wayne State University.

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