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As a young child growing up, Maria Contreras bore witness to years of domestic abuse suffered by her mother. After she married and had children of her own, Contreras felt history cruelly repeat itself in her South Los Angeles home. For 10 years, her spouse used verbal and, occasionally, physical abuse to control her life: from every penny she spent, to when and where she could go, to depriving her of sleep.

Worst of all, Contreras knew the abuse she endured was harming her children’s mental health.

“I was in a very difficult situation,” Contreras recalled. “I didn’t know how to get out of it.”

* * *

Meanwhile, in the San Fernando Valley, Patricia Montes was discovering that even being surrounded by children was not enough to keep her from feeling isolated.

With no job and custody of her three grandchildren all under the age of 12 Montes’ daily life consisted of taking the kids to and from school, doing chores at home and watching television – with no social activities or connections among other parents or adults.

“I did feel sad because I didn’t have any friends,” Montes recalled. “And I felt lonely as a parent because it was only me doing things with the kids.”

* * *

Elsewhere, in East Los Angeles, Magdalena Cazares was struggling with troubles of her own. Diagnosed with diabetes in her late 30s, Cazares needed to change her daily diet. Not only for herself, but for her children, whose habit of eating unhealthy food was becoming a concern.

They kept asking me: ‘Why do we need to change? Why can’t we drink soda?’” Cazares recalled. “It felt like I was taking away a toy from them without a reason.”

Although two of her children grudgingly adopted the move away from sodas and fried foods, her preteen son continued to eat and drink food that was bad for him.

“He would sneak in food between meals and behave as a 5-year-old,” Cazares recalled. In frustration, Cazares sometimes “ended up screaming at him.”

While each of these women faced different life issues many miles apart — domestic abuse, parental aggravation and social isolation — they came to find hope and empowerment in the same place: their local Best Start Community Partnership, a place-based initiative that is one of First 5 LA’s signature investments.

Contreras, who started attending three years ago, broke down at one of the Best Start Metro LA Community Partnership meetings. Instead of remaining silent, her fellow partnership members responded with an offer to help Contreras deal with her abusive situation.

“I didn’t feel by myself,” Contreras, 47, recalled. “I decided I wasn’t going to stand for it anymore. The meetings helped me feel more secure and gave me the confidence to separate from him and move forward.” She also helped her children receive counseling.

Likewise, Montes and Cazares found hope and help in their local Best Start Community Partnerships: Cazares joined Best Start East LA five years ago and Montes joined Best Start Panorama City & Neighbors a year ago.

“Connecting with Best Start gave me a better awareness of community groups that can allow me and the kids to get away from the TV and participate in events and activities in school and the community,” added Montes, now 46.

“Connecting with Best Start gave me a better awareness of community groups that can allow me and the kids to get away from the TV and participate in events and activities in school and the community” – Patricia Montes

“Specifically with Best Start, I have taken classes and one of the things I have learned is how to count from one to 10 as a way to calm down with my children and avoid screaming at them,” said Cazares, now 42.

Just as importantly, these three women’s involvement with Best Start did not end with the resolution of their personal problems. Each one adopted the values and mission of Best Start: to bring together parents and caregivers, residents, organizations, businesses, government institutions and other stakeholders to collectively build a vision and develop strategies to create the best possible community for young children and their families. This is accomplished through family strengthening, community capacity building and systems change.

According to the Center for the Study of Social Policy, research shows that families do better when they live in strong, supportive communities. This can be accomplished by implementing place-based initiatives that support community capacity building. A key component of Best Start, community capacity building is one of six Board-identified investment areas to advance the outcomes of First 5 LA’s 2015-2020 Strategic Plan.

Most recently, members of the 14 Best Start Community Partnerships researched and developed projects that bring focus to key issues facing families with children prenatal to age 5 in their communities.

The issues included, but were not limited to, finding ways for families to overcome social isolation, increasing supportive parent and neighbor networks, and building leadership skills and peer mentoring among teen and young parents. Each Community Partnership then determined the strategies and activities to implement that would best address these issues.

The most important part of this process is that members, especially parents and caregivers, strengthen and learn valuable, new skills that they can use in the future to tackle other issues affecting the children and families in their community. This process builds a community’s capacity to continue the work once First 5 LA’s funding and support has concluded. Through Best Start, new leaders emerge who will go on to influence decision-making in their community.

Contreras — who found strength from her partnership members, by attending various workshops, and in joining the parent leadership group — said “the key for me was curbing domestic violence inside and outside of the home.”

Pulling from her own experience, Contreras worked together with the 350 other members in the Best Start Metro LA Community Partnership to focus on strengthening social connections, particularly among children and families who are exposed to violence. Last year, First 5 LA’s Commission approved funding for the Partnership’s strategies and activities to strengthen social connections, which include defining and promoting a community culture of respect.

“It’s pretty courageous for Maria to share what she went through. I see the impact it has on others,” said Best Start Metro LA Director Brenda Aguilera. “They are focusing on violence inside and outside of the home. They want to create a culture of respect. It’s not about bringing in law enforcement to arrest the perpetrator and break families up, it’s about ‘How do we break the cycle and identify systematic barriers that are triggers?’ I think what they are saying is that we have a role in this and we can make these changes together.”

To this end, Aguilera said, Best Start Metro LA members are developing a declaration that commits to a culture of respect. In the coming months, Community Partnership members will ask people inside and outside the Partnership to sign this declaration.

Like Contreras, Montes and Cazares brought their personal experiences with social isolation and parenting frustration to their Partnerships’ table, where others shared similar struggles. At Panorama City & Neighbors, Montes and her fellow community partners also identified social connections as a key focus, with an emphasis on increasing the percentage of parents that have someone to speak with for advice on parenting. Activities include community outreach efforts like training parent resource liaisons and operating parent cafés.

Similar to other Best Start communities, Cazares’ Partnership used research to identify the key issues in their geographic area. One study revealed that parents with children 0-5 in East LA were more than twice as likely (23 percent) to feel aggravated with their children compared to parents living in Los Angeles County overall (11 percent).

“I can see how living in a poor community, parents strive to cover basic needs, and when they are unable to do it, this frustration turns to the children, because they might cry, they might want more food, and that’s when some parents can start screaming and showing that frustration to their children,” Cazares said. “But the more parents are involved in their community, the more they know where to go to seek support or who to talk to when they feel frustrated.”

Working together, Cazares and the Best Start East LA Community Partnership decided to focus on improving family capacities, particularly among those living in poverty. Strategies and activities include the creation of parent navigators to increase community knowledge of children’s developmental stages and assembling parent peer educators to help reduce parental stress.

Late last fall, a major milestone was reached by eight of the 14 communities when First 5 LA’s Commission granted funding for the Partnerships to implement the strategies and activities to address their respective community-identified issues. These partnerships joined Best Start partnerships in Metro LA, Long Beach and Palmdale, whose strategies and activities were approved and began earlier in 2015, making it 11 partnerships that so far have been approved. Three additional communities will be brought to the Board for approval in March 2016: Lancaster, West Athens and Northeast Valley Community.

“If you can change the fabric of a community to have people have more of a stake in it, you are likely to have better outcomes over a long period of time” -Armando Jimenez

“After years of sharing the stories, the progress, the challenges, and the learning we can now point to concrete examples of strategies and activities in the 14 Best Start Communities intended to strengthen families and bring about community change,” said Best Start Communities Director Rafael González. “A milestone indeed.”

First 5 LA Commissioner Nancy Haruye Au, who has served on the Board since the agency first looked into place-based investments in the mid-2000s, called Best Start’s progress “a tremendous step forward. My vision is that we are 20 percent down the road. It’s messy work. It’s hard work. We still have a long way to go. But as we get more progress, we get more clarity.”

Added Au: “I am proud because I don’t think there’s a city or a county as large as we are in the nation that has taken on this work with taxpayer money at this scale in terms of upstream prevention and partnering with individual parents and families in order to create an environment that is going to foster better outcomes for children.”

Next, González said, Best Start will focus on sustainability. First 5 LA is developing a new long-term support structure for the Partnerships. This structure will allow for more autonomy for the Partnerships and for Best Start staff to focus more on systems change as outlined in First 5 LA’s 2015-2020 Strategic Plan.

While long-term, place-based initiatives like Best Start have been implemented by government and foundations for decades, results from each initiative can take many years to appear as hard data. But there are some recent examples, such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, which served as an early inspiration for First 5 LA’s place-based efforts, said First 5 LA Director of Research and Evaluation Armando Jimenez.

“If you can change the fabric of a community to have people have more of a stake in it, you are likely to have better outcomes over a long period of time,” Jimenez said.

“Placed-based initiatives are an important strategy to create greater impact by working at a systems level to create change,” said Dr. James Ferris, Director of The Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at the University of Southern California. “While good programs are helpful, their impact is limited by not leveraging the broad set of forces that impact on improving the quality of life for those that we are trying to help.”

González can relate to those Best Start is trying to help.

“As a child growing up just west of downtown LA, my father and I would travel to the suburbs on trash-pickup days to look for junk and recyclables we would fix and then sell at swap meets in order to make ends meet,” he recalled. “I remember the days when we had no child care, only the latchkey and neighbors to watch over us because our parents were working. I remember having to deal with the violence in the streets. But in between these challenges there was that hope that somehow, somewhere, opportunities would emerge and we would grab onto them.”

Thanks to Best Start, Montes, Cazares and Contreras have each grabbed onto their opportunity for a better life for themselves and their children.

For her part, Contreras doesn’t plan on letting go.

“Before, I wasn’t allowed to sit and embrace or talk to my children,” she recalled of her husband’s oppression. “Since then, I’ve been able to do that. It’s a beautiful relationship I have with them.”

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