News & Events

Smart Start and Mars Hill University Collaborate for Children

Marquez
Marquez Williams and other MHU football players greet children in the Hot Springs Community Learning Center at Mars Hill University.

On an unseasonably warm day this past November, children from the Hot Springs Community Learning Center visited with football players at Mars Hill University.

For the children, it was clearly a treat. They stared, with round admiring eyes, as the football players took turns telling them about their various positions, and led them on tours of the locker room, weight room and other facilities. 

The afternoon visit was the initiative of Mars Hill junior Marquez Williams, a social work major and an intern with Madison County Partnership for Children and Families (Smart Start). Marquez is a tall, tough-looking young man, with the powerful body of a fullback. But his manner is tender when he speaks of the children assisted by the Smart Start program, and of his plans for a career that will positively impact the lives of youth.

"I want to be able to give back and help others," he said.

Marquez is one of two social work students at Mars Hill University who had fall internships with Madison County Smart Start. For Marquez and Sumner Stancill, the internships taught them about the administration of a non-profit program, about the needs of children in a rural county, and about the crucial role that exposure to reading plays in preparing young children for school. Nancy Alenier, Director of the Madison County Smart Start program, said, "We have a long history of hosting social work interns. A lot of the work that we do is not strictly education-focused. Much of it involves parent support, outreach, community organizing, and supporting children who have exceptional needs. There are various opportunities for social work students to either provide direct services or to learn about the operation of a nonprofit human service agency."

However they may serve, Alenier said, the university students are assets to Smart Start, as well as to the community. "I'm delighted that we can be the bridge that helps connect university students to early childhood programs and children and families throughout the county," she said.

According to Alenier, these internships for social work students are just one aspect of a long-running relationship of collaboration between Smart Start and Mars Hill University that benefits both organizations as well as the people they serve.

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of that relationship is that Alenier and other professional staff of the Smart Start program have donated office space on the MHU campus. Since 2011, Mars Hill University has provided office space to the agency in Spilman Hall, a building on the upper quad of the university.

Administrators with both Smart Start and MHU say they believe the arrangement is unique. (And in fact, when former NC Governor Jim Hunt, who initially began the Smart Start program in the mid-90s, visited the campus of Mars Hill University in April 2014, he said knew of no other situation like it in the state.)

"We have always acknowledged that the university relationship is a very important one for Madison County Smart Start. It has been that way since the beginning, but I credit Dr. Dan Lunsford and his leadership for opening the door beyond philosophy to some practical resource sharing," Alenier said.

Smart Start
MHU students Marquez Williams and Summer Stancil, Director of Smart Start Nancy Alenier and SS early literacy specialist Beth Detwiler examine books to be distributed to children in Madison County, in Alenier's office in Spilman Hall.

MHU president Dan Lunsford, a former public school superintendent and early childhood education advocate, said giving office space to the Smart Start program made perfect sense for the university as a responsible member of the Madison County community.

“In the spirit of the University being a strong community partner for vital services, we found available office space for the program that we could provide at no cost. We support strong pre-K program services and are pleased to provide this support," he said.

According to Alenier, Smart Start's location on the university campus makes a close working relationship possible with, not just the social work program, but other academic and service programs on the university campus as well.

One of the largest scholarship initiatives on campus is the Bonner Scholars program, which requires significant community service on the part of recipients. Several Bonner Scholars have chosen to give service hours in early childhood education centers affiliated with Smart Start and to the agency itself.

Another example is a service project completed last year through the MHU English program. Fifteen students in one of Dr. Joanna Pierce's courses provided nearly 60 hours of engaging reading experiences with children at early childhood education centers in the county. The university students were able gave back to their adopted community while learning about the importance of early literacy.

The Smart Start program also benefits from input and resources in the Education Department. According to Alenier, "Faculty from the education department serve on our Higher Education Committee, which is devoted to elevating the college credentials of the local early childhood education workforce.” She also described an exciting joint venture to develop early childhood leaders in the region. The Summer Leadership Institute is only possible through the co-sponsorship of the University and the organizational leadership provided by Dr. Susan Stigall, Education Department Chair.

Strengthening the ties between MHU and Smart Start is also found in the agency's Board of Directors, which includes several current and retired MHU faculty and staff, as well as alumni.

According to Dr. John Hough, chair of that board and retired MHU Dean and professor of education, that involvement started in 1994, when Smart Start was first proposed.

"The larger cities in North Carolina got Smart Start in 1994, and here in Madison County, we went ahead then and formed our planning committee. That was five years before we got our grant in 1999," Hough said.

Hough said that the committee included representatives from numerous agencies throughout the county, as well as ample representation from [then] Mars Hill College. Today, Hough credits MHU's involvement in the program and space-sharing arrangement with saving the Madison County Smart Start program.

"To be honest, if the university hadn't given us [Smart Start] this office space, we would probably have had to combine with Buncombe County's program," he said. "This situation is so much better, because our administrators can concentrate on our local children."

Although Hough spent his career as a K-12 public administrator and as a college educator, he said that now, in retirement, he has found tremendous satisfaction in supporting the work of Smart Start. It is his love for education, he said, that has inspired him to realize that all other learning hinges on those all-important early childhood experiences.

"I just think that Smart Start could be the most important program I've ever dealt with," Hough said. "I've been involved with preschool children, elementary, middle, high, college university, adult education, graduate education, but I think this is the most important program because there is so much development that takes place in young children in those ages from zero to five."

Hough is quick to cite research that points to early learning as key to future school success. "The research says that if you don't use your brain in certain ways when you're young, a critical window of opportunity for learning has been closed.”

Seizing those critical learning opportunities is the primary goal for Smart Start, and cooperation with Mars Hill University helps ensure that those efforts will continue into the foreseeable future.