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Grant to help more parents, caregivers learn importance of talking with babies

A mother and baby take a Talk With Your Baby class at Notre Dame's Robinson Community Learning Center.
Provided/Robinson Community Learning Center
A mother and baby take a Talk With Your Baby class at Notre Dame's Robinson Community Learning Center.

In what likely marks its largest-ever programming grant, Notre Dame’s Robinson Community Learning Center Thursday announced it has won a $500,000 grant to expand its Talk With Your Babyprogram.

The program is based on neurological research finding that children benefit greatly when their parents or caregivers talk to them frequently in their first three years of life.

Program Director Valerie Kozera explains.

“It’s beneficial for their whole life, not just while they’re young,” Kozera says. “It makes them better learners, better social-emotional control, and overall it’s an absolute positive experience.”

Kozera says parents might think it’s pointless to talk often with a baby, since they can’t yet form words themselves, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“When you’re doing care with your child, Mommy’s going to change the diaper, Daddy’s going to change your diaper now, or different things, just always feeding those words. Narrating Baby’s and Child’s surroundings, telling them what they’re going to do, and just talking to them.”

The center launched the free program in 2009, serving about 75 families a year. This grant, from the Lilly Endowment, ultimately will more than triple its reach to 400 families a year.

Parents attend a one-hour class weekly for eight weeks, receiving free children’s books and other incentives.

Susan Devetski is director of the Robinson Center. She’s excited to bring the program, which has been a model for such efforts around the country, to more local families.

“For the Robinson Center, it really allows us to take a program that we’ve seen as very successful and scale it more broadly for inclusion of a lot of the city,” Devetski said.

South Bend Mayor James Mueller also looks forward to the expansion. He’s often noted that the city has no direct role in South Bend public schools, but it can still impact education by continuing to push the state to fully fund pre-kindergarten programs. This fits well within that philosophy, Mueller said.

“Let’s just say we do get universal pre-K, that’s a goal of mine,” Mueller said. “Even at three, four years old, there’s already a gap if parents don’t have the tools they need to talk with their baby in the right way.”

His administration lent the Robinson Center its enFocus fellow, whose demographic research demonstrated the need to serve more children, says Robinson Center director Susan Devetski.

“What we noticed is there was really a high need for improved vocabulary development and literacy development within the city,” Devetski said. “When we took a look at score of students, their literacy scores, it was really obvious that this was an area that we could really help to improve.”

Parrott, a longtime public radio fan, comes to WVPE with about 25 years of journalism experience at newspapers in Indiana and Michigan, including 13 years at The South Bend Tribune. He and Kristi live in Granger and have two children currently attending Indiana University in Bloomington. In his free time he enjoys fixing up their home, following his favorite college and professional sports teams, and watching TV (yes that's an acceptable hobby).