Jim Stringfellow: Why children at risk matter to business

Published: Monday, October 8, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, October 6, 2012 at 2:11 a.m.

An open letter to Tim Giuliani, our new Gainesville-area Chamber of Commerce CEO:

Dear Tim:

Congratulations on your appointment and welcome back to our community!

As you know you are arriving here during the peak of some very successful years of business recruitment, retainment and service to innovative companies and a new level of cooperation between the local business community and the UF. So how do you improve on a chamber that is currently rated in the top 1 percent of the nation's chambers?

I don't pretend to know all the answers but can give you the perspective of someone who has run a successful business here for more than 40 years and watched our community grow and change over these years.

Tim, as wonderful as we have it there exists a shadow here that we as a chamber tend to ignore when, for instance, we are touting our benefits to prospective businesses. Let's start with this fact: Every year about 800 babies are born in Alachua County into abject poverty.

That's 27 percent of the total births, a percentage validated year after year and growing. Those babies are typically born to unwed mothers, often involving drug use, welfare dependency, incarcerated fathers, homelessness, ignorance, and rampant abuse and neglect. Did you know that the DCF handles over 2,000 cases of child abuse and neglect in our county every year?

Here's the thing. A recent study of young adult felons here found that those babies are where these offenders are coming from. They typically enter kindergarten unprepared to learn. By third-grade they are generally already doomed to academic failure, dropping out of high school and facing a dismal future of unemployment, welfare dependency and criminal behavior.

This criminal behavior is not just a personal safety and social issue. Did you know that half of our general fund taxes goes toward law enforcement ... that it costs $31,000 a year to house an adult prisoner, and a whopping $51,000 for a juvenile offender?

Our state ranks last in funding children's health care and next to last in pre-K education quality. But we are near the top in size of our prison population.

This is why we see our sheriff and police chief so active locally and statewide advocating for early childhood development agency funding. They get it.

They know we either spend a dollar now on prevention or seven dollars in social costs later.

So, Tim, my suggestion is to get our chamber involved in these types of issues by forming a "Sustaining Quality of Life" committee, either as a stand alone or an adjunct to the Public Policy committee. It would be charged with examining all issues that could effect the quality of life of our businesses and families.

Some of the committee activities could be:

1) Attend the meetings of the Alachua County Children's Alliance, an organization composed of the heads of the children's. service agencies in the county.

2) Join with the team of children's advocates that go to Tallahassee to confer with State leadership.

3) Aid in gathering and disseminating data that elevates public awareness of children's issues.

4) Study the linkage of children's issues and future workforce concerns.

5) Maintain a chamber representative on the United Way's Success by Six Committee

6) Study such innovative school structures as the Christo System that has every student spending one day a week working in banks, lawyers offices, hospitals, universities, etc. (Christo graduates are enrolling and persisting in college at twice the rate as their peers from the same socio-economic background, and the schools are self supporting!)

That may sound far-fetched in a county where fully half of our high school graduates lack the written, spoken, thinking and problem solving skills that employers want.

Tim, we may be plowing some fresh ground here, or maybe not. The Hawaii Chamber, for instance, is now working on a state-wide campaign to inform the public about the importance of access to high quality early child education and care.

And here is what our own Florida Chamber of Commerce says on the issue: "Early Learning and pre kindergarten programs are vital. If we get early learning ‘right' then we see incredible returns on investment through savings in our court system, juvenile justice system and corrections. A vibrant early learning system is like finding a cure for a nasty disease instead of treating the symptoms"

Tim, thanks for listening. Good luck, and please always remember: We are all in this together!

Jim Stringfellow was chair of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce in 1975.

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