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2019 | 2018 | 2017

Children's Book Challenge Announced

Every Child Thrives has announced the kick-off of its TalkReadPlay Children's Book Challenge. The goal of the book challenge is to provide new books to economically disadvantaged children in Dodge and Jefferson Counties, ages newborn to five, who may not have books in their homes.


In Dodge and Jefferson Counties, only 24% of third-graders from low-income families read at grade-level. The majority of these children start school behind their more advantaged peers and never catch up. Children who have access to books in their homes read at higher levels, giving them the best chance of future academic success, health and economic stability. 


"We want the children in our community to have the best start to their education possible," said Tarasa Lown, Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation (GWCHF) Program Officer and facilitator of Every Child Thrives. "If we can place books in the homes of the children who need them most, we are taking a big step toward this goal."


The TalkReadPlay Children's Book Challenge aims to raise $12,500, putting approximately 4,000 books in homes across the two counties. Online monetary donations will be accepted through the non-profit First Book. Local TalkReadPlay Impact Partners will use the funds to select educator recommended, age-appropriate books for the children they serve.


Lyle Wuestenberg, TalkReadPlay supporter and co-owner of J&L Tire, challenges local businesses and individuals to donate.


"On behalf of my family and the family at J&L Tire, we encourage our entire community to rally together and support our children," said Wuestenberg. "These children will grow up to be our future employees and neighbors. When we give them books to read at home, we are helping them succeed in school and life."


Lown suggests businesses participate by raising funds through employee challenges, matching donations or by giving the "gift of literacy" for their holiday giving programs.


Individuals and families are encouraged to participate as well. Donations can be made to commemorate a special occasion, engage fellow book lovers, mark a milestone or in memory of a friend or loved one. When donations are made in someone's honor, an optional letter and certificate can be emailed to the honoree.

The TalkReadPlay Children's Book Challenge will run through December 31.

For a list of TalkReadPlay partners, visit


For more information or to donate, visit or call Andi Merfeld, GWCHF Community Engagement and Grants Coordinator at 920-390-4682.


TalkReadPlay is an evidence-based parent education campaign of Every Child Thrives, a collaborative effort supported by the GWCHF. The campaign teaches parents and caregivers the science behind early brain development and empowers them to create more learning opportunities with their babies and young children.

Watertown Daily Times

Foundation Commits $4 Million to Early Learning

The Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation will invest more than $4 million in TalkReadPlay efforts over the next five years to provide high quality early learning opportunities to families with young children. The foundation's investment will develop the new Watertown children's library as a flagship TalkReadPlay center and allocateTalkReadPlay programming resources to family-serving agencies across Dodge and Jefferson counties.

TalkReadPlay is an evidence-based parent education initiative of Every Child Thrives, a collaborative effort supported by the health foundation. TalkReadPlay relies on trusted messengers, such as community health and human service professionals, physicians and early education providers to teach parents the science behind brain development and empower them to create more learning opportunities with their babies and young children. To date, more than 20 Dodge and Jefferson county organizations have adopted the TalkReadPlay model and 300 individuals have been trained to provide families with TalkReadPlay messaging and tools.

"Healthy early child development is a key priority for the GWCHF and we are committed to supporting evidence-based, collaborative efforts so children are healthy, ready for kindergarten and succeeding in school," said health foundation board Chairwoman Karla Mullen. "We are thrilled to provide funding to help our partners implement TalkReadPlay, which will have positive impact on families."

The health foundation's commitment includes a $2.5 million capital grant and $800,000 in programming and technical assistance resources for the Watertown Public Library. The foundation has committed an additional $800,000 in TalkReadPlay resources to support public libraries and family-serving agencies throughout the rest of Dodge and Jefferson counties.

Watertown Public Library, Watertown Family Center, Watertown Unified School District, Watertown Public Health and other Every Child Thrives members will serve as collaborating partners to develop the new library center as a best-practice model supporting families and young children.

"Ninety percent of brain development occurs during a child's earliest years of life. It's at this time children develop the foundation for all future learning, and parent interaction has the single greatest influence on early brain development," said Tina Crave, health foundation president and CEO. "Our goal with the TalkReadPlay investments is to give parents and caregivers tools to promote the early learning children need to gain communication, critical thinking and 'life skills' to thrive in the 21st century workforce."

"The TalkReadPlay center will be designed to engage children and families beginning at birth and provide opportunities for adults and children to play and learn together," Crave said.

Activities at the center will be designed based on child development research, promoting early vocabulary, social development and problem-solving skills through active play and adult-child interaction.

"Science shows that young children learn best through interactive play and movement. The TalkReadPlay center will be a vibrant and fun learning environment, a destination for families throughout the region," Crave said.

Library Director Peg Checkai said the library board and staff are excited for the opportunities the TalkReadPlay center will provide for children and families.

"Much of a child's learning and brain development happens long before a child ever starts school," Checkai said. "Parent-child interaction plays a critical role during this time. Through programming and parent-child activities offered at the TalkReadPlay center, we will support parents and caregivers to become their child's first teacher."

Formed out of the 2015 joint venture between Watertown Regional Medical Center and LifePoint Health, the health foundation is a catalyst for positive, lasting and measurable health improvement across the region. The foundation's mission is to inspire collaboration, mobilize resources and encourage innovation that measurably contributes to the wellbeing of our communities.

The health foundation strategically focuses resources to "move the needle" on priority community health indicators including healthy child development, social and emotional wellbeing, healthy eating and active living. To date, the health foundation has invested more than $3.5 million in health enhancement initiatives across Dodge and Jefferson counties.

Every Child Thrives, a partnership of more than 30 community partner organizations working collectively to improve outcomes for young children, was created in 2017 and is facilitated by the health foundation. To learn more visit To learn more about TalkReadPlay or to download the early learning app, visit

The Watertown Unified School District, Dodgeland School District and community partners are working together to rally students to attend school on time, every day.

Through their partnership with Every Child Thrives, local elementary schools will kick off the school year with a data-driven, national best practice attendance challenge called "Challenge 5" to encourage students to strive for less than five days absent.

"Creating good attendance habits early is critical to a student's academic success," said Brad Clark, Webster Elementary School principal. "Children who are chronically absent in elementary school are more likely to be chronically absent in later years, since they never developed good attendance habits."

In Wisconsin, students are considered chronically absent when they miss 10 or more days of school in an academic year. Locally, 30 percent of students in kindergarten and first grade fall into this category. When elementary students are chronically absent, they often have difficulty keeping up with their peers academically and tend to fall behind in reading.

When students improve their school attendance, their grades and reading skills often improve -- even among those students who are struggling in school.

"When students are able to read at grade-level by the end of third grade, they successfully transition from 'learning to read' to 'reading to learn,'" said Jessica Johnson, Dodgeland Elementary School principal. "These students are three to four times more likely to graduate high school, setting them up for a strong future."

Regular attendance is the precursor to the "soft skills" that employers will expect and require. Students who don't develop the habits associated with good attendance in the early years will find it difficult to develop them as adults.

Using attendance data from last school year, each elementary school has set its unique outcome measurements for improved attendance. By closely monitoring each student, the schools will work to increase the number of children who are absent five days or less during the school year.

Attendance teams in each school will educate students and families on the negative impact of too many absences, recognize good and improved attendance, and closely monitor absences in order to offer personalized early outreach for students and families in need of additional support.

Community members are asked to support "Challenge 5" by encouraging children to be in school every day, offering to help with rides to school, sharing the importance of school attendance with families, or reinforcing the "Challenge 5" message in the workplace.

ECT is a collaborative effort of more than 30 community organizations working together to ensure all children thrive in health, learning and life. The Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation provides financial support and facilitation for the partnership.

Since its creation in September 2017, the health foundation has invested more than $3.2 million in health enhancement initiatives across Dodge and Jefferson counties. To learn more about the foundation and supported initiatives, visit or Facebook at Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation.


WATERTOWN — If you really want to help kids, you can make the most difference while they're young.

Helping local parents and communities maximize their children's learning and development at an early age is the goal of a new initiative being funded by the Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation. Cooperating in this effort are the Jefferson County Health Department, Jefferson County Human Services Department, and numerous other area agencies, nonprofits and professional organizations in the field of child development.

The Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation got its start in 2015, when the Watertown hospital was sold to a private entity and the hospital's community foundation rolled over into the new foundation.

Since 2017, the foundation has invested more than $2.5 million in health enhancement initiatives across Dodge and Jefferson counties.

Following its formation, the foundation spent a year doing a local health needs assessment, said Tina Crave, president and CEO of the foundation. The goal of the assessment was to narrow the group's efforts to top priority issues the foundation could focus on in hopes of maximizing its impact.

With this information in hand, planners determined that one of the group's greatest priorities would be boosting early childhood development. Thus, the overarching campaign called "Every Child Thrives" was born.

More than 30 organizations across Dodge and Jefferson counties have signed on to "Every Child Thrives."

The initiative set three key goals: lowering child abuse and neglect, making sure youngsters arrive at kindergarten "ready to learn," and increasing local students' reading proficiency by the third grade.

"Until third grade, students are learning to read, but after that, they're reading to learn," Crave said.

Studies have shown that youngsters who fail to master reading by the third grade face continued learning challenges, leading to more problems down the line, including employment and relationship challenges in adulthood.

The Every Child Thrives group developed three action teams, bringing in facilitators to determine the root causes of the three problems on which it was focusing.

Crave said one of the root causes was determined to be lack of awareness of how critical the early months and years of life are in terms of a child's development.

The single greatest stimulus to learning and growth at this early age, research has shown, is a child's experience with loving relationships and interactions with adults.

Obstacles that can get in the way of these very important relationships include electronics, heavy job demands, and parents who are struggling in other areas that prevent them from bringing their "best selves" to their parenting role.

"Our goal is to make parents aware of the importance of these early interactions and to provide the tools to allow parents to be a great ‘first teacher' for their child," Crave said.

Children are born ready to learn. In the first years of life, the brain makes a million new neural connections per second. By their fifth birthday, 90 percent of a child's brain development has already happened, researchers have determined. But the brain doesn't do this on its own, it depends on input from parents and others in the form of focused, loving interactions and conversations.

That's where the new Talk/Read/Play initiative comes in, which already has been adopted as a priority strategy by more than 20 local partners, with more than 250 "trusted messengers" trained to date.

"When parents talk, read and play with their babies and young children, they have an enormous positive impact on brain development, a process referred to as ‘brain building,'" said Tarasa Lown, a program officer for the initiative.

This need not take a whole lot of time, Crave noted. Important interactions can be worked right into the daily rhythm, during shopping trips, dishwashing and bathtime.

Thus, the Talk/Read/Play campaign is designed to give parents the tools to foster this early growth and development with brief, creative interactions, backed up by the science behind brain development.

The campaign, the full name of which is "Talk/Read/Play with Your Child Every Day," will have three fronts.

First, organizers hope to spread the word to "trusted messengers" throughout the community, from doctors and nurses to librarians, community volunteers, early childhood educators, members of the faith community and more, people and families interact with on a regular basis who are in a trusted position.

Second, organizers are offering parents a free, easy-to-use tool in the form of the "Daily Vroom" app, available in both English and Spanish.

This is a free app that parents can sign up for just by entering their child's birthdate. Then every day, the app will suggest a "surprise activity" that could be as simple as having the child pick up a leaf from the ground and determine the tree from which it came.

Other simple suggestions include telling stories to babies, singing to them in the tub, talking about favorite family memories, or making a young child the star of his or her own story.

"When you tell children stories and sing songs in a fun way, you share the importance of language and music," reads a Brain Building Tip on the Talk/Read/Play flyer. "Your baby is hearing new sounds and words, making connections by listening to your stories and songs."

"Interacting with children doesn't come naturally to everyone — especially when the child is too young to respond," Crave said. "These are easy ideas that everybody can do."

The Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation representative said that the "Daily Vroom" app is gaining traction nationally among child development experts and advocates. In Wisconsin, Dodge and Jefferson counties are among those taking the lead, and the app is also being promoted in Milwaukee through the Betty Brinn Museum.

Third, organizers will be reinforcing the "Talk/Read/Play" message in local communities through posters in exam rooms and libraries, billboards, radio messages, lawn signs and more.

In addition, the group has developed a website to connect parents with information and resources. Developed by the Dodge/Jefferson county group, it can be found online at It has a ".wi" web address because many of the agencies and organizations that the Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation is working with serve multiple counties and this was more inclusive.

The foundation only just has begun the process of rolling out the Talk/Read/Play initiative.

The group distributed information at the recent Johnson Creek Child Safety Fair, and the campaign officially kicked off last Saturday at the Watertown Public Library, the first dedicated community space for the campaign.

As a public Talk/Read/Play site, the library is decorated with posters, information, and interactive tools. Signs in the library challenge youngsters to spot all of the circles or red shapes, for example.

"We plan to spend a year to 18 months rolling this out," Crave said. During that time, organizers will be working with all of the foundation's partners to integrate the Talk/Read/Play message and related information into their operations.

For example, home visitors from the Jefferson County Health Department will be educated on the campaign, as will representatives of Child Protective Services, which will have information on how Talk/Read/Play can serve as a tool for foster families.

"Overall, we're committing to a five-year effort," Crave said. "We want to help our partners embed these tools into their daily practices."

The community education campaign will be publicizing Talk/Read/Play on a variety of fronts.

This fall, organizers are working with various community partners to develop a Talk/Read/Play playground and a Talk/Read/Play storytime for young children at local libraries and family center(s).

Meanwhile, representatives actively are training a variety of community "trusted messengers," as well as offering presentations for groups of professionals or service organizations interested in learning more.

Crave noted that anyone interested in having a representative speak to their group about Talk/Read/Play may indicate that interest on the Talk/Read/Play website, located at, or call the Greater Watertown Community Foundation at (920) 390-4000.

More information about Talk/Read/Play is also available on the initiative's Facebook page, which offers brain-building activities, parenting tips, news on family-oriented community events and more. More information about the foundation is available on or its Facebook page.

Every Child Thrives invites community leaders and interested supporters to attend its first All Team Huddle where the Action Teams will prepare to launch their implementation strategies. The event will take place on Friday, April 6th, from 8:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. in the lower level meeting room at the Bank of Lake Mills, 400 Bernard St., Watertown.

In addition, the Every Child Thrives' Action Teams, Transformation Council, Data Team and Communications Team, will share what they've learned, final recommendations and 2018 action plans.

Huddle action items will include:

  • Finalize the launch of a community campaign called TalkReadPlay, designed to encourage early brain building activities and provide free child development tools for parents and caregivers
  • Prepare to launch a community-wide school attendance campaign at the start of the 2018/19 school year
  • Plan to expand universal developmental screening and parent education using the evidence-based Ages & Stages screening tools
  • Learn about best practices in strengthening families through parent education and preventative, early-intervention services
  • Celebrate ECT's acceptance into the Campaign for Grade Level Reading as well as a national trauma-informed, resilience-oriented learning community hosted by the National Council on Behavioral Health

Any individual or community organization with an interest in becoming involved in Every Child Thrives is welcome to attend the Huddle. Space is limited for this event. To register, visit

The Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation (GWCHF) provides the backbone support for Every Child Thrives. The mission of the foundation is to inspire collaboration, mobilize resources and encourage innovation that measurably contributes to the wellbeing of our communities. To learn more about the GWCHF and Every Child Thrives, visit

The campaign is a national collaborative effort to improve reading proficiency, early learning and early school success for all children, especially those from low-income families.

"This campaign represents a tremendous opportunity for our schools and our community to partner together to share the importance of literacy for our students and our families. I believe this campaign and our work with Every Child Thrives will not only help improve our students' achievement in school, but also establish a strong foundation for future successes of our students, our families, our schools and our community," said Cassandra Schug, superintendent of Watertown Unified School District.

Reading proficiency by the end of third grade is a critical milestone toward high school graduation and success later in life because it marks the transition from "learning to read" to "reading to learn." Students who have not mastered reading by that time are more likely to drop out of high school and struggle throughout their lives.

"Our schools have a steadfast commitment to ensuring all learners can read and write at grade level or higher," added Annette Thompson, superintendent of Dodgeland School District. "This commitment is not dependent upon where a student resides nor derailed by the life circumstances that may make learning more challenging for a child. Ensuring a high-quality education is provided for every child is both our mission and our responsibility. The partnership with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading will enable our schools to do this essential work effectively and efficiently."

The Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation is providing coordination and backbone support for the Every Child Thrives and Campaign for Grade-Level Reading efforts.

"Currently, only 39 percent of our children are reading proficiently by third grade," said Tina Crave, President and CEO of the foundation. "Alarmingly, less than one in four economically disadvantaged children in our community achieve reading proficiency by third-grade. We have been inspired and impressed with the outcomes achieved by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading communities throughout the country, and we are honored to be selected to participate in the national efforts."