In 1977, Linda Creed wrote “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.” In 1985, Whitney Houston sang the words through our tape decks and car radios. In 2018, Josh Sitton and the Studer Community Institute are making it happen in Pensacola with the second annual Light Up Learning event.
Sitton serves on the Studer Community Institute board, but because of his NFL schedule he is unable to be as involved as he would like. So he came up with the idea of the Light Up fundraiser to provide financial backing for the important cause.
“My wife and I are truly blessed to be able to give back to the community that we call home,” Sitton said. “We believe the positive development of Pensacola’s youth is paramount to the success of our city’s future. We are excited to help continue the effort and investment the Studers have made in this great community.”
The Light Up Learning event will raise funds to support community outreach and early childhood development.
“When my children were born, the hospital told me how to care for them, but not how to help them grow in a positive and healthy way,” said Shannon Nickinson, director of early learning for Studer Community.
Realizing that there was a lack of research in Pensacola in the area on brain development in newborns and early childhood literacy, Nickinson and SCI went to work.
In 2014, in an attempt to determine what makes a community great, and in cooperation with the University of West Florida Office for Economic Development and Engagement, SCI created a dashboard of 16 metrics to provide an at-a-glance look at the area’s growth, educational attainment, economic prospects, safety and civic life.
According to Nicole Webb Bodie, director of business and community outreach for SCI, “Two key metrics identified that 66 percent of children in Pensacola are not prepared when they enter kindergarten, and 66 percent of high school students are not prepared to graduate. By then, it is already too late. They are too far behind.”
Data from the Florida Department of Education released recently tells us that only 45.77 percent of Escambia County kids who started kindergarten last fall were “kindergarten ready.” That means of the 2,908 children who started kindergarten, 1,577 boys and girls did not have all of the basic academic skills they needed to be ready to learn to read, count, and begin their school journey primed for success.
“Eighty-five per cent of brain development occurs by the time a child is 3 years old,” Webb Bodie said. “We had to figure out how to give the power back to the parent.”
Research shows that the more words a child hears in the critical 0 to 3 years age range, the more strongly developed their brain will be, increasing that child’s chances for success in school.
In comes Shannon Nickinson. Under her leadership and with help from IMPACT 100, the Brain Bag was born.
“I am a mom. I got the opportunity to volunteer in (my children’s) classrooms,” said Nickinson. “I got to see the difference in kids who aren’t ready and those who are. Nothing is worse than being in a classroom and seeing the look on a child’s face when he doesn’t know what the other kids know.
“The Brain Bag is an early literacy kit for new moms,” Nickinson said. “It teaches them the importance of talking, singing and playing. You don’t need fancy equipment or a smart phone to help your baby’s brain develop.”
Brain Bags are currently given to more than 5,000 parents in three Pensacola area hospitals each year, along with coaching and training on how to utilize the information.
SCI sponsors the Brain Bag program as well as a Parent Outreach Program in local elementary schools and LENA Start training designed to teach and encourage parents to talk and communicate more with infants and toddlers.
To help fund the SCI programs and outreach, Webb Bodie coordinates the Light Up Learning fundraiser each year.
This year, the circus-themed event features music, a stilt-walker, contortionist, magician, food, live and silent auctions and numerous local celebrities and professional athletes.
Sitton, a Catholic High School graduate and member of the Miami Dolphins, will be a special attendee. Sitton was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the fourth round of the 2008 NFL Draft and was part of the Packers team that beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.
Other special guests include Cody Whitehair, starting center for Chicago Bears, and 1993 Heisman Trophy winner and 11-year National Basketball Association veteran Charlie Ward.
Live auction items include a Miami Dolphins package, including a flight for two to Miami or Fort Lauderdale, two nights of hotel accommodations, two tickets to the Miami Dolphins game, on-field pregame passes and meet-and-greet with Sitton; a Perfect Plain Grain to Glass Beermaking Experience including a midweek release party for your beer with a free keg for you and your friends; and golf with Derrick Brooks, the Pro Football Hall of Famer and graduate of Booker T. Washington High School; lots of merchandise autographed by professional athletes; and many other great items.
Bids on silent auction items can be made at lightuplearning.cbo.io/.
“Children are wonderful, curious little spirits, and all should have the same opportunities,” Nickinson said.
Donna D. Stough is a freelance writer for the News Journal.
Want to go?
WHAT: Light Up Learning fundraiser
WHEN: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Thursday, June 21
WHERE: Court of De Luna Event Space, 116 E. Gonzalez St.
TICKETS: Tables of eight are $1,000; $125 per person; or $225 a couple.
DETAILS: Contact Nicole Webb Bodie at [email protected] or 850-748-2027.
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