Walton Foundation supports new ‘Childhood Initiatives’ center in Bentonville

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 344 views 

Bankers, builders, philanthropists, civic leaders, business and education professionals convened early Thursday (Sept. 17) in Bentonville to celebrate the legacy of Helen Walton and her vision for Northwest Arkansas’ youngest residents.

The Early Childhood Initiatives Center, named for Walton, also unveiled a grassroots capital fundraising effort to secure the remaining $1.8 million it needs toward reaching its $14.3 million goal. This capital will provide for the construction of a new expanded facility in Bentonville and continued educational efforts to more than 500 other pre-school programs in Benton and Washington counties. 

“We are so fortunate to already have $12.5 million raised toward the goal because of some generous partners including the Walton Family Foundation, Walmart Foundation and Tyson Foods,” said Michelle Barnes, director of the children's enrichment center.

Other sponsors recognized at Thursday’s event were Harrison French & Associates, Bob and Marilyn Bogle, East-Harding Construction, Chris and Connie Horton, Melinda Allen and BRR Architecture and Pepsico.

Barnes said 90% of a child’s brain is developed by the time they are five and 80% by the age of four. She said in 2009 the Bentonville center began looking to expand. 

“We could have just built a larger facility and that would have helped another 120 children, but what about the 32,000 others that would be left out with that plan. That’s when the program expanded its vision with the Early Childhood Initiatives Center (ECIC) that now supports 240 of other early childhood programs across Northwest Arkansas with curriculum, programing, professional development, financial support and accountability,” Barnes said.

When the ECIC first began its mission only 19% of the centers were quality accredited at the state level. Today that has improved to 48%, but Barnes said the goal is 100% as the ECIC aims to be the anchor for early childhood education in the region.

She said the new site for the ECIC, built with the capital funds, will be located on J Street, next to the Amazeum and the south entrance to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

“The ECIC has reached capacity in both space and resources by serving over 240 childcare centers in our current facility, which is why have launched this” It Takes A Village to Raise A Child” campaign,” Barnes said.

She said building plans for the new 8,700-square-foot facility will get underway next month and they expect to break ground in late spring 2016 with an expected completion before the end of next year.

This new expanded center will allow the ECIC to reach out to the remaining 260 area childcare providers and provide them with the support they need. Barnes estimates that 18,000 additional children in Northwest Arkansas will benefit from this new expansion.

East-Harding Construction of Little Rock will handle the construction. Bob East, co-founder of the construction company, said his organization is “incredibly exited to be chosen for his high profile project.”

“We built two e-Stem Charter Schools in Little Rock funded by Jim Walton and Walter Hussman, but this is largest project we have taken on in Northwest Arkansas,” East said at Thursday’s event. “To see this kind of turnout and community focus on early childhood development is amazing.”

Lynne Walton, a board member of Walton Family Foundation, told the group that Helen Walton (her mother-in-law) began a grassroots effort in 1981 to provide more access to quality daycare with learning enrichment. 

“I was a young mother with two small children back then. Helen got the community together to map out a plan for better access to quality childcare because business professionals at Walmart and elsewhere needed it … She put together a board of directors and all the other pieces and then funded it,” Lynne Walton said.

Helen Walton’s vision for the children of Northwest Arkansas was filled with possibilities of early enrichment opportunities, according to Lynne Walton. 

Sara Lilygren, executive vice president of corporate affairs for Tyson Foods, said too often it’s hard to recruit talent to Northwest Arkansas because of the perceived lack of access to quality education which starts as soon as a child is born. She said workforce talent is constantly needed in executive and professional circles in this region. That is why Liligren said Tyson Foods sponsored the new capital campaign with a $250,000 commitment.

A few years ago the Northwest Arkansas Council brought together civic and business leaders with educators and philanthropists to looks at what was needed to successfully grow the region beyond its flagship industries. Mike Malone, CEO of the council, said two glaring needs were workforce shortfalls and better access to childhood educational opportunities. Malone commended the local community for stepping up in a concerted effort to address these issues.

He said the economic impact of investments in early childhood learning has a tremendous payback. For every $1 invested, the return through benefits to the child, workforce and society equals $9.21.

Karen Parker, senior manager for Walmart Foundation, said supporting early childhood initiatives is sync with the foundation’s mission to improve the quality of life in Northwest Arkansas by ensuring working families have quality options for the care and education of their children, regardless of income level.

“This effort will strengthen future generations for years to come,” Parker said.