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FITB's Favorite Children's Museum and Community Partner

Filling in the Blanks is proud to say that Stepping Stones, in Norwalk CT, has been a part of the FITB family for over 2 years now. Stepping Stones Museum for Children is a local organization where play is serious business. Their school of thought is children learn best by doing and that this should be a focus in a child’s life very early on. Their entire museum is dedicated to early childhood education and they even offer preschool programs that provide a variety of activities for kids. Their programming is unparalleled and is sure to get young minds learning. As our second summer session with Stepping Stones begins we are also proud to announce a collaboration of organizations and launch of a new program. Stepping Stones, Filling in the Blanks, Children’s Learning Centers of Fairfield County and Wholesome Wave are partnering up this summer for a new collaboration, Fueling Families, a six-week pilot program to provide food, nutrition education and literacy support services for preschoolers in need in Stamford and Norwalk, CT.

Read below to learn more about our favorite children’s museum, their involvement with our organization and the incredible partnership that is happening now!

Tell us a little about Stepping Stones. How did it all start, when did it all start and what has been Stepping Stones mission throughout the years?

Stepping Stones Museum for Children (SSMC) was founded in 2000 by parents, educators and community leaders actively seeking to create an essential resource for expanding young minds. The mission of SSMC is to broaden and enrich the educational opportunities for children ages 10 and under and enhance their understanding of the world. In 2010, a major expansion doubled the museum’s size and its capacity for joyful, quality educational experiences.

The museum’s core service area covers all of Fairfield County and extends into other parts of the New York Metropolitan Area. In 2018 (our most recently completed full fiscal year), we served nearly 217,000 onsite visitors; 4,639 active member households; and over 15,000 school and group participants (onsite and offsite). Our Open Arms accessibility initiative provided free and/or reduced access to approximately 46,000 recipients.

Stepping Stones uses playful learning experiences to teach important life skills and promote early language and literacy development through an interdisciplinary mix of science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM). As a multidimensional resource, the museum offers exhibits, programs and services that take an interactive approach to early learning. Stepping Stones is a fun, colorful and engaging environment that recognizes the value of play in promoting learning, creativity and discovery, as well as social, emotional and cognitive development. As a place where children are encouraged to explore, invent, test and observe, the museum is a leading destination for schools, groups and families.

Stepping Stones is much more than a museum. As a leader in community-wide efforts to prepare children for school and to close the achievement and opportunity gap, it has evolved into a premier educational resource providing high-quality and meaningful interactive learning experiences that enrich the lives of all children and families.

Besides the Children’s Museum how does Stepping Stones get involved in serving the Norwalk Community?

The Early Language and Literacy Initiative (ELLI) Lab School opened at Stepping Stones in 2012 for children ages 3-5 to improve school readiness and close the achievement gap for young children. Three ELLI classrooms are now located within Norwalk Public Schools; and ELLI infant, toddler and pre-kindergarten classrooms are located at nearby Fairfield University’s Early Learning Center. Two new ELLI-mentored classrooms opened in Bridgeport, CT in the fall of 2017.

The museum also served as a founding member and anchor organization for Norwalk ACTS, a diverse partnership of over 100 civic leaders, educators and organizations working collectively to improve the lives and futures of Norwalk children from cradle to career.

In 2006, Stepping Stones introduced the award-winning Healthy Children, Healthy Communities® (HCHC) initiative, representing more than 50 organizations working collaboratively to promote the health and well-being of children and families.

How would you describe the Fueling Families Pilot Program? What is this mission of this program and collaboration of organizations?

Camp ELLI/Fueling Families (CE/FF) is a new collaboration taking place this summer with three additional partners to add a nutritional education and literacy component and free access to healthy fruits and vegetables to our pre-existing Camp ELLI program. We will be able to serve approximately 210 Norwalk and Stamford children this summer with little or no preschool experience to bridge both the achievement and opportunity gaps and help them gain parity with their more affluent peers. Through this pilot program we will be able to provide a more comprehensive experience for these children and their families over a five week period, five days a week.

CE/FF is a bilingual (English and Spanish) expanded food access, literacy and nutrition education collaboration that will be implemented through language and literacy best practices with Children's Learning Centers of Fairfield County (CLC), Filling in the Blanks (FITB), Norwalk Public Schools (NPS) and Wholesome Wave (WW). This collaboration will enrich our program already in existence in Norwalk, expanding the program to two CLC locations in Stamford.

Each week, across the five-week period, participating children and their caregivers, in both Stamford and Norwalk, will be provided with home extension kits that will include nutrition focused story books (in both English and Spanish); tips for caregivers on how to read food labels and make it a fun family activity and prepare fresh fruits and vegetables at home; recipe cards focusing on vegetables; a WW voucher to allow families to purchase fruits and vegetables at area Shop Rite stores; and conversation starter activities.

What does food insecurity mean to Stepping Stones and its mission?

The preeminent and overarching challenge that the museum is continuously working to address is the multifaceted achievement and opportunity gap throughout Connecticut, one of the highest in the country. An achievement gap is an observed, persistent disparity in measures of educational performance among subgroups of students, especially groups defined by socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity and gender. The opportunity gap is the greatest crisis facing America's schools. The opportunity gap is the disparity in access to quality schools and the resources needed for all children to be academically successful.

Food insecurity, a condition of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food, is a critically important factor influencing both the achievement and opportunity gaps in Connecticut.

All of the museum's programs, services and initiatives are designed to help close these gaps through a variety of strategic approaches, including early learning programming that is rich in literacy and language content and inter-connects students, teachers and parents throughout that journey; working to create equitable and regular access to nutritious food and education about food related decisions; and better connecting the museum to underserved populations (such as area immigrant communities and individuals with special needs) through our Open Arms Program.

Tell us, how did Stepping Stones get involved with Filling in the Blanks?

Stepping Stones first started working with Filling in the Blanks during the 2018 Camp ELLI to provide food distributions to qualifying families. The partnership was so successful, we expanded the partnership to year-round distributions to other ELLI sites throughout Norwalk.

How has the partnership with FITB effected the children we serve in your various programs? Are you seeing firsthand how hungry bellies effect the learning process? Has the partnership with FITB made a difference in the success and growth of the children you serve?

The FITB food distributions fill a growing food gap shortage issue we have been seeing with ELLI families. Stepping Stones provides food to participating ELLI children during the week-day and sometimes extended afternoon programs; however many children go hungry over the weekends and holiday breaks, which can cause behavioral and learning issues for children when they are back in the classroom. The FITB distributions are definitely helping to tackle this issue. Removing hunger or emotional issues and other stressors from a child’s life automatically positions them to remain or become more open to the rich learning experience that ELLI provides.

Why did FITB's mission resonate with you?

The provision of gap food over the weekends is directly addressing a growing need in our community and is helping the museum better address both the achievement and opportunity gaps in our community.

What would you like to see in the future for the Norwalk community and how do you see Stepping Stones and FITB as a part of that vision?

Based upon our findings from the Fueling Families pilot program, we are interested in partnering with FITB and the rest of our partnership to potentially expand the program to other sites on a year-round basis, not just the summer. Doing so, will potentially provide an integrated food access, nutrition education and literacy project for families of all socio-economic levels.


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