Michelle Balleck shuffles through the books available through Dolly Parton's Imagination Library in her office with Connections 4 Kids. The organization recently released its report detailing its work with families and young children in Moffat and Rio Blanco Counties.

Photo by Andy Bockelman

Michelle Balleck shuffles through the books available through Dolly Parton's Imagination Library in her office with Connections 4 Kids. The organization recently released its report detailing its work with families and young children in Moffat and Rio Blanco Counties.

Connections 4 Kids continues to thrive

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— Connections 4 Kids works to strengthen resources for children from birth to age 8, striving to improve dental health, provide literary options, raise awareness about child abuse and offer many other services. For more information, call 970-824-1081 or visit Connections4Kids.org.

Connections 4 Kids is climbing the success ladder.

The early childhood council centered on providing opportunities for children in Moffat and Rio Blanco counties recently released its annual report for its fiscal year of July 2012 to June 2013. The organization’s mission to “strengthen resources and services for children birth to age 8 and their families” was carried out last year with projects new and old.

Among the accomplishments was last November’s introduction of reading program Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which provides age-appropriate books to children 5 and younger.

Kids from Craig, Meeker and Rangely quickly jumped on the initiative, with 225 Moffat County and 148 Rio Blanco children enrolling to receive books starting with “The Little Engine That Could” and ending with “Look Out, Kindergarten, Here I Come!”

Connections 4 Kids Coordinator Michelle Balleck said the numbers were almost too successful, with more children turning out in the area than the Dollywood Foundation had anticipated.

“In the first 11 days, we exceeded projections for the seventh month of the second year,” she said. “In Rio Blanco, it was even higher, and we exceeded projections for the fourth month of the fourth year.”

Balleck said she had to close registration for Imagination Library sooner than she had hoped as Connections sought additional funding. The book costs are about $25 per year per child.

“It’s really inexpensive, and the only other thing we had was a small percentage of promotional when we did the launch, and now we’re just on to expenses for books,” she said.

Registration currently is open for Moffat County and Meeker, with some additional funding needed for Rangely. Though the logistics for Imagination Library can’t guarantee a place in the program for an area’s entire population of children 5 and younger, Balleck would like to see all families across the two counties be able to take advantage of the program.

“They’re terrific, high-quality books that are appropriate for them developmentally based on their age and they’re books the kids love,” she said. “We hear back from families all the time that the kids are so excited to get the mail, they love to read the stories and they want to read them over and over.”

Among the other objectives of Connections 4 Kids last year was maintaining previous endeavors, like Cavity-Free at Three. Working with the Northwest Colorado Dental Coalition, the group has assisted in training 160 health, dental and early childhood providers within the program.

“By providing these trainings, we are educating the community about the importance of oral health and therefore improving the overall health for children,” Oral Health Coordinator Amanda Arnold said.

Throughout the past year, 195 children from Craig, Meeker and Rangely received screenings, fluoride varnishes and education about dental hygiene. Cavity-Free will complete its run in the area in December, coming to the end of a three-year grant, but Connections will continue to be involved with keeping children’s teeth healthy.

The organization recently created a resources list of Moffat and Rio Blanco dental providers and specialists in pediatric dental work along the Western Slope so parents can find the plan that works best for their financial and insurance needs.

As of the end of the year, Arnold no longer will be the oral health coordinator for the organization, but she will stay on as a board member.

“It’s become very important to me,” she said. “Connections 4 Kids improves the overall well-being of children and helps in educating the community about the importance of these young lives.”

Another important project is the second year for Cherish the Little Things art show, which gives young artists in Moffat County the chance to shine. Balleck said the show’s size grew from its first year of about 210 pieces of art to more than 300 in early 2013.

As a fundraiser, the show brought in more than $8,000 in the first year and more than $9,000 this past year.

“I’m hoping to hit $10,000 for the next show,” Balleck said.

Balleck already is planning for the next Cherish the Little Things in February, with a meeting for anyone interested in getting involved at 4 p.m. Sept. 23 at her new office at the Center of Craig, where she set up shop in July.

“We’re going to start moving our events and meetings here so we’re more centralized,” she said. “We’re working toward becoming a 501(c)(3) organization, so we’re phasing out Social Services and the county as our fiscal agents to be an independent nonprofit organization.”

The new space also is an indicator of how Balleck would like to continue to run the organization — with more room for people who want to make a difference.

“I feel like I finally have room for people to come in and work with us,” she said.

Andy Bockelman can be reached at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@craigdailypress.com.

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