Amber Wallin, Kids Count director for New Mexico Voices for Children, flashed up a photo on a screen during her presentation to childhood advocates and elected leaders in Las Cruces for the first Southern New Mexico Kids Count conference on Thursday. Anyone of a certain age would recognize the black and white photo of a motley bunch of kids in baseball uniforms: The Bad News Bears.
Wallin said people in New Mexico were tired of being those Bears, tired of hearing the same old stats: 49th in child well-being, 50th in education, 49th in community and family. Some were tuning out, becoming numb, or throwing up their hands because it didn’t seem like there was anything they could do to change the situation.
What is her answer to that? “Policy matters,” she said.
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez in 2013 accepted the Medicaid expansion and the result of that is that the state has climbed in the rankings on health: 37th overall, less than half the number of uninsured children in 2015 compared with 2010, half the number of teens who abuse alcohol or drugs in that same period, and slightly fewer child and teen deaths.
“We’re focusing on telling stories about the good things happening, and also talking from a solutions-based perspective,” she said.
She said that in the past five years, 4,000 more children have gotten access to New Mexico PreK, and 4,000 more families have been served by home visiting programs, which support new parents, lead to more well-child visits and have shown the highest return on investment according the the Legislative Finance Committee.
With a ranking of 49, there is a huge need for solutions.
James Jimenez, director of NM Voices for Children, and Wallin said the numbers are just the start of the conversation. They brought the Kids Count Conference to southern New Mexico for the first time at the invitation of Ngage New Mexico, a local education nonprofit, because they have been wanting to get closer to communities across the state.
Getting people involved at the local level is how to incorporate cultural values and customize solutions to tackle the grim indicators Kids Count tracks, Jimenez said. NM Voices’ next step is to do some of what Doña Ana County is doing, he said, “talking to the people in our communities. We know what the solutions are.”
Also at the conference were elected leaders from southern New Mexico, including Las City Councilors Kasandra Gandara and Gill Sorg, County Commissioner Billy Garrett, state Reps. Nathan Small, Doreen Gallegos and Joanne Ferrary, and Sen. Bill Soules. Several spoke on a panel about early childhood issues.
“We need to keep the eye on the ball,” said Sorg. “And in this case the ball is poverty. And the way to fix that is education, education and more education.”
Lori Martinez, deputy director of Ngage NM, who moderated the discussion, urged residents to reach out to their representatives, to talk to them about what they think New Mexico needs to do to improve the lives of children in the state.
“We want you to engage with your elected officials. That’s the point of this conference,” she said.