This is an emergency. Invest in children or forfeit the future.

Children in Manchester in Clay County have access to learning programs sponsored by Save the Children but many rural children who live in poverty are missing out on opportunities for a better life.
Children in Manchester in Clay County have access to learning programs sponsored by Save the Children but many rural children who live in poverty are missing out on opportunities for a better life. Herald-Leader

Leah, a 7-year-old from rural Eastern Kentucky, struggled with learning to read and wasn’t on track with her peers. Not wanting Leah to fall further behind, her first-grade teacher referred her to Save the Children’s in-school reading program, which boosts literacy growth for young children.

Leah’s grandparents, who are raising her, also signed her up for Save the Children’s after-school program, which offers additional help to growing readers, as well as physical and nutritional activities.

These programs are scarce in Clay County, where Leah lives with her grandparents and younger sister. It is one of America’s poorest counties with more than half of the children growing up in poverty.

Residents and leaders in Clay County have recognized that change was needed to improve the learning environment for their children. A partnership evolved between Save the Children and the Clay County community that has been effective in helping students like Leah reach their full learning potential.

With consistent learning support and encouragement, Leah is now meeting reading level expectations for her age. She has made such great progress, her teachers say, that she likely will no longer need the supplemental in-school reading program next school year. Leah will continue to attend the after-school program, however, which brings a smile to her face.

Leah is fortunate. Unlike many children living in rural poverty, she had access to high-quality educational programs to help her catch up to her classmates. Across America, the experiences shaping children’s lives are starkly different.

While many kids have opportunities to develop, healthy food on their tables and regular chances to play safely and grow their imaginations, far too many families and communities struggle to give their youngest residents the childhoods they deserve. Our next generation is not nearly prepared to succeed in life.

Children living in rural America’s impoverished pockets, such as Appalachia, are more likely to experience childhood “ender” events, such as higher infant mortality, lack of essential educational resources and proper access to health care, missing out on nutritious meals and teen pregnancy rates 60 percent higher than those in urban areas. Many are caught in the crippling opioid crisis.

In order to shine a light on this injustice, Save the Children has released its second annual End of Childhood Report, which examines some of the reasons why the youngest citizens around the world — and here in Kentucky — are missing out on the childhoods they deserve.

According to Save the Children’s U.S. Complement, Growing Up Rural in America, Kentucky ranked as the 37th-best state for children based on five childhood ender events: infant mortality, food insecurity, high school dropout rates, child homicide and suicide, and early pregnancy.

The Bluegrass State slid four spots from last year, primarily because it dropped in progress related to infant mortality, meaning more babies died before their first birthdays.

Kentucky continues to excel in high school graduation rates, improving by one spot to seventh overall. Teen pregnancy rates in Kentucky also improved slightly.

Child homicide and suicide rates worsened significantly. Kentucky fell eight spots to 37th and rose from 6.9 deaths per 100,000 children to 7.9 deaths per 100,000 children.

Save the Children began its work in the United States in Harlan County in 1932, providing hot meals to children during the Great Depression. The organization currently partners with 37 schools in eight counties in the state to deliver education programs to more than 13,000 children, focusing on those in rural areas.

The situation in many of these communities exemplifies an emergency poverty crisis across Kentucky and across America. That’s why we are calling on the U.S. government to work with different sectors and communities to respond and invest in quality early childhood education programs, such as child care, home visiting and pre-K. These programs all make kids more successful. As a nation, we will all benefit from that success for decades to come.

While children are only 20 percent of our U.S. population, they are 100 percent of America’s future.

Mark K. Shriver is senior vice president of U.S. Programs & Advocacy at Save the Children. Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, is president of the Kentucky Senate and represents District 25.