Nonprofit Corner: Giving Kids A Step Up in Life

Each month, Hawaii Business profiles small and medium nonprofits that deserve more recognition.

September, 2016

Ninety percent of a child’s brain is developed by age 5, so it’s critical that every child have access to high-quality child care and early learning programs, according to the nonprofit Hawaii Children’s Action Network.

Of course, that’s not everything they need. “All children should have a safe place to sleep, food in their stomachs, access to care and a family that can support them,” says HCAN executive director Deborah Zysman. “But we’re not there yet.

“Child care in Hawaii is about a third of the average family’s income. Half of our kids are starting kindergarten with no preschool. Even though we have good health care access compared to some other states, a lot of our low-income kids still don’t have access to medical and dental care. About 25 percent of Hawaii’s kids are considered food-insecure,” Zysman says.

The Manoa resident, with two young children herself, has a master’s in public health from the University of North Carolina. She and her husband moved here in 2003.

The nonprofit was founded as the Good Beginnings Alliance in 1996 by an act of the state Legislature. Zysman was hired as executive director in 2012 to help it transition from a “quasi-governmental,” direct-services office to its current status as an independent nonprofit advocacy agency. In 2015, it changed its name to Hawaii Children’s Action Network to reflect the new focus.

“I have a passion for community health, community organizing, bringing people together to work on root causes,” explains Zysman.

“HCAN now does ‘movement-building’ – we work on a ‘super-hero’ theme to champion kid’s issues – with partner agencies, the business community, lawmakers and we’re doing a lot more work with families in terms of leadership training and family strengthening.”

To determine what issues are key for children, the nonprofit analyzes data and best practices from across the nation and the world.

“Last fall, we convened a children’s policy agenda at the Church of the Crossroads with about 80 people from throughout the state, to determine where the gaps are in direct services. Then we discuss what action might be taken.

“This past legislative session, we were able to get an additional $4 million in funding for preschool subsidies for about 1,200 low-income children through the Department of Human Services.”

HCAN has about 5,000 individuals in its advocacy network. “Lawmakers need to hear from real people in the community about what will make things better for kids. And we try to be the bridge for that.”

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Jackie M. Young