Five key organizations launching effort to help children be ready to learn in kindergarten

Building Strong Brains: Elkhart County’s Early Childhood Initiative
November 1 Event

More than half of Elkhart County’s children arrive at kindergarten without all the necessary tools for success.

Five organizations have been collaborating to launch an initiative to assure that every child is ready for success when they enter kindergarten. The effort called Building Strong Brains: Elkhart County’s Early Childhood Initiative has been in planning stages for a number of months and will launch with a November 1 event with Dr. Dana Suskind, a surgeon and leading authority on the role parents and caregivers play in promoting children’s healthy brain development.

“The key is building strong brains, which is the name we’re using for this initiative,” said Candy Yoder, chief program officer of the Community Foundation of Elkhart County. “Brains are built rapidly in the earliest stages of life and we want to help our population of more than 18,000 children under the age of six — as well as their families — have the resources they need to do this important work.”

The Community Foundation is working with Horizon Education Alliance, CAPS – Child and Parent Services, Crossroads United Way and The Source to lead the initiative. Since a workshop in May, teams have been meeting to work on three key issues facing Elkhart County: health of mothers and children, support for young families, and high-quality childcare and learning environments. The findings of those focus groups will be presented at the November 1 event.

Parent sessions this summer have already identified top values (family, respect, and high-quality childcare, among others) and top stressors (loneliness, managing multiple responsibilities, and cost of living, among others).

Brian Wiebe, president/CEO of Horizon Education Alliance, said, “We know from parents and local educators that our county needs to do better on providing high-quality, safe, reliable and affordable childcare. We hope to create a system in our community that solves that issue.”

Building Strong Brains won’t seek quick fixes, but a system of change that will create positive outcomes. That work could take a decade or longer and have tremendous outcomes not only for individuals, but also schools, businesses and nonprofits in our community. “This really has the potential to transform our community,” said Rebecca Shetler- Fast, CEO of CAPS – Child and Parent Services.

Data is helping drive and focus the efforts. Crossroads United Way’s work with ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) households has demonstrated that as parents work to make ends meet, they have to make tough choices about accessing healthcare and quality child care or preschool. Health and child care function as cornerstones to a child’s healthy development, as well as to a family’s income stability and growth. Yet many ALICE families struggle to obtain these essential needs for reasons including language barriers, transportation, time, affordability, quality, assistance and availability. “Supporting both our hard-working caregivers and their children is key in this work together to ensure kids are ready for kindergarten,” said Natalie Evans, vice president of community impact at Crossroads United Way.

The community is invited to learn more about how to do this work together. Community leaders, parents and anyone interested in helping children succeed are welcome to attend the event at the College Mennonite Church on November 1 featuring Dr. Suskind, who is professor of surgery and co-director of TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health. She is the author of Parent Nation (2022) and Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain (2015).

At a workshop from 1 to 4 p.m. that afternoon at the church, the action teams will present along with Dr. Suskind. Those at the workshop can shape priorities for the initiative. That night, from 6 to 7:30 p.m., Dr. Suskind will present a keynote address and local strategies will be shared. Childcare is available for ages 2 to 8 for the evening session.

The event is free, but registration is requested:

Free copies of Suskind’s Parent Nation are available for people to read prior to the event. Libraries across Elkhart County have copies of the books that families can keep. You can reserve your copy at

Future events will be planned to work on the issues that aren’t unique to Elkhart County, but need to be addressed to assure success for 3,000 or so children born every year in this county.

Five organizations are making this a priority and leading this community-wide effort: