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Headwaters Foundation's Biggest Initiative Aimed At Montana's Youngest Children

University of Montana President Seth Bodnar hands the microphone to Headwaters Foundation CEO Brenda Solorzano at the announcement of the Zero to Five initiative. Dec. 13, 2018.
Headwaters Foundation

A healthcare foundation has announced a big investment in Montana's youngest residents.

"To be able to say that we are coming together to do this work, it just makes my heart sing, so thank you so much for being part of that effort," Brenda Solorzano, executive director of the Headwaters Foundation in Missoula said at a launch event today.

She announced it's “Zero to Five” initiative, a $16.7 million multi-year grant focused on children aged zero to five years. It's got big goals and a lot of moving parts, and Brie Oliver, head of a non-profit called Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies says it has the potential to be transformative.

"Oh my gosh, it's huge, it's an absolute dream come true," Oliver says. 

Oliver's organization is a statewide coalition that supports mothers and babies. She says people who work in that field are used to getting grants that last a year or so, and that the six-year commitment from Headwaters is a welcome change.

"We can actually be strategic and thoughtful and start with the big vision, and then get there over several years, scaling up, and I do believe that with this incredible partnership we will have the outcomes to show what a difference it made."

What is the big vision? And what outcomes are advocates for little kids and young families looking for?

Headwaters Foundation's Brenda Solorzano says, at its core, the project's goal is to provide places for parents of young kids to turn to for help.

"And sometimes when you're at home, by yourself and you don't have a go-to place, you don't have tools, you don't have resources, you don't have trainings. Those are the kinds of things that we hope become available via this work."

Solorzano says the idea is to think “upstream” of some of Montana's most difficult problems, and head them off by helping kids get a good, healthy start in life.

"We have high rates of suicide, we have behavioral health challenges, addiction problems, we have a high number of kids going into the foster care system. We have families that aren't able to live resilient lives in our state."

The Foundation plans to give $11.5 million in grants to local organizations tackling those problems in the 16 Western Montana counties it serves. Another $5.2 million will establish a program office at the University of Montana that's being established to help the local groups.

"They're going to need help understanding, what are best practices that are out there that have already been tried that might work in Montana? There might be some evaluation of some of those efforts that needs to happen. There might be some research that needs to happen around, what are the resources that are already flowing in Montana? Is that the best use of the resources? Are there be other ways to think about coordinating the financing of these services?"

That program office will coordinate efforts of Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies, the Childwise Institute and the UM Center for Children, Families and Workforce Development. It'll be run by Reed Humphrey, dean of UM's College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences.

"Our mission really is to serve the citizens of Montana, and this is a really tangible way to make that happen," Humphrey says. "And hopefully continue to break down that perception that we're sort of a university that just prepares students, but we're not really in the community or the region, because that's where we need to be."

It's going to be at least a year before parents and young kids in Montana see any new resources becoming available as a result of the Zero to Five initiative Headwaters Foundation launched Thursday. It's the biggest initiative so far for the three-year-old organization, which was started with proceeds from the sale of Missoula's then non-profit Community Hospital to a for-profit partnership. By law, Headwaters has to spend about $5 million a year, and this initiative will consume a little under $3 million a year. Headwaters says it's looking for partners to extend their project to Eastern Montana in the future.

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