The Center of Disease and Prevention statistics show nearly one in five children in the country will exhibit some form of developmental delay or disability.
The Early Childhood Council of Hillsborough County has been on top of the troubling issue for 30 years to make sure such problems affecting children are properly diagnosed and treated prior to their starting kindergarten.
Since 1986, the nonprofit agency — with funding from the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County and in partnership with the Hillsborough County School District, the University of South Florida and Head Start — has provided free screenings for nearly 30,000 preschoolers throughout the area. As a result, 75 percent of those tested have been referred for further evaluation.
The Early Childhood Council — in collaboration with several faith-based organizations throughout the county who open up their facilities — hosts once-a-month screenings for children from birth to age 5 whose parents have concerns about their vision, hearing, speech and language development, motor skills, cognition or behavior.
The most recent screening, which served 70 children, was held at St. Mark’s Catholic Church in New Tampa.
“We have developed a model that provides maximum impact and have removed the barriers that have kept some children from receiving this valuable service,” said Steve Martaus, executive director of the Early Childhood Council.
The key to the success of the project is teamwork, including the assistance of professionals who volunteer their services and number about 75 at every screening.
Among them are people from the school system and students from USF and Hillsborough Community College.
Martaus and Kelley Parris, executive director of the Children’s Board, like to tell the program’s success story involving Jordan, the adopted son of Loren and Tony Dungy, former coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a 2016 Football Hall of Fame inductee.
It was through the Early Childhood Council’s screening that their child was diagnosed and got the help he needed regarding the fact his body was impervious to pain and he suffered from anhidrosis, a lack of sweating that can lead to hyperthermia.
“Children are this community’s most precious gift and the opportunity to evaluate a child’s development and prevent possible lifelong handicapping conditions is a resource no child should be denied,” Kelley Parris said.
Daffany Brunson took her 3-year-old son, Chase Brunson, to the screening at St. Mark’s Catholic Church. She was concerned about his enunciation of words.
“So far, so good,” she said. “This screening opportunity is such a blessing.”
Todd and Stephanie Speceh were also at the church with their daughter, Gracie, also 3. They were worried her cognitive development wasn’t on par with most other children her age.
“She’ll have some further evaluation and they’ll help set it up, but she looks to be on track,” Stephanie Speceh said. “This opportunity is great and the screening process moves pretty fast.”
Early Childhood Council Assistant Director Greg Vanplet noted his agency also evaluates and offers support for children by phone, with the help of Champions for Children, another local nonprofit advocacy organization.