For Real

March 22nd, 2018

It starts with our children, and at the finish what we did for our children may well be our measure.

As published in The Memphis Daily News, March 23, 2018, and in The Memphis News, March 24-30, 2018

PorterLeath 2


“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

The late, great Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen – father-in-law to the late-great Tennessee Senator Howard Baker – purportedly said that regarding government spending in a Tonight Show appearance in the 60s.

In the coming years, St. Jude is planning to spend some $9 billion expanding facilities and research fighting childhood disease in the Pinch. FedEx just announced their plans to spend more than a billion expanding the Memphis Hub. The Grizzlies in their worst season have been recently valued at a billion, and billions in development are being seeded in long dormant gardens.

Pretty soon, we’ll be talking about real progress.

I thought about that and the Dirksen quote, about where we spend money and place our hope, as I walked through a bright and sunny promise being made to tomorrow in the midst of some of our deepest poverty and darkest prospects. I saw the possibilities in the colorful walls and ceilings and floors, the creative play and learning spaces inside and out, the openness in the sight lines, in approach, and in the whole experience of exploration and discovery.

I was in Porter-Leath’s Early Childhood Academy where 224 kids to age five are getting a real Head Start, where 750 teachers a year learn in the Teacher Excellence Program, where – like Porter-Leath does all over town for about 6,000 children – tomorrow is released from the bondage of ignorance and hopelessness, where children are given a chance from the jump.

I and so many others have written about the importance of pre-school education, we’ve all talked about it, every government entity has debated it, every expert has opined, and children and tomorrow wait.

Meanwhile, Porter-Leath is doing it.

In their mission, “Empowering children and families to achieve a healthy, optimal and independent lifestyle.” In their vision, “To be the early intervention leader in our community by helping Memphis to help children and families.” In their values, “We believe in early intervention, safest environment, teamwork, integrity, professional development and doing what we say.”

I’ll say.

In a county where 47% of children under five are in poverty, there’s a lot to be said for that mission, that vision and those values.

A decade ago, I did some work for Books From Birth, the Shelby County affiliate of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, the statewide effort to bring age-appropriate books free to all children from birth to age five in all of Tennessee’s 95 counties, including a couple of grandkids named Conaway. 

Last year, that program became part of Porter-Leath, too, and today Books From Birth is the largest of 1,700 programs affiliated with the Imagination Library, providing books to 46,000 kids in Shelby County, turning pages and opening minds.

That’s well more than half a million books.

A half-million books here, a half-million there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real change.

I’m a Memphian, and we raise nothing if we don’t raise our children first, all of them.


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