Faculty News

Lynne Vernon-Feagans testifies to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission

Lynne Vernon-Feagans was among a dozen early childhood experts and leaders who testified to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Healthier America in Raleigh on June 12, 2008.

The purpose of the field hearing was to provide an opportunity for the Commissioners to hear testimony from leaders in the field about non-medical initiatives that are making positive differences in the health of children.  The 14-member national, independent, non-partisan Commission is investigating how factors outside the health care system such as education, housing and community resources affect opportunities to lead healthy lives. Commission co-chairs are former senior White House advisors Dr. Mark McClellan and Alice M. Rivlin.

The Commission focused its first field hearing on supports for new families and early childhood development because a large body of research has consistently shown that brain, cognitive and behavioral development early in life are strongly linked to health outcomes, including cardiovascular disease and stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, smoking, drug use and depression.

North Carolina was chosen as the Commission’s first field hearing location because it is a nationally recognized leader in privately and publicly funded early childhood and youth development programs.

Vernon-Feagans testified about the Family Life Project, a comprehensive, interdisciplinary study that is tracking children growing up in small cities, towns and rural areas in three counties in eastern North Carolina and three counties in central Pennsylvania with high concentrations of poverty. She is co-principal investigator of the project, which is funded by a total of $29.3 million from the National institutes of Health for the first 10 years of the project, from 2002 to 2012.

Other organizations that provided testimony include:

  • Smart Start, North Carolina’s nationally recognized initiative to ensure all children enter school healthy and ready to succeed. Smart Start helps working parents pay for child care, improves the quality of child care, and provides health and family support services through local partnerships in every county in the state.
  • More at Four, North Carolina’s pre-kindergarten program that provides a high-quality educational opportunity for all four-years-olds in the state who are at risk of poor school performance. Teachers engage children in active learning with a focus on five domains:  approaches to learning; emotional and social development; health and physical development; language development and communication; and cognitive development.
  • Lulu’s Child Enrichment Center, a highly successful on-site corporate daycare facility at the Mitchell Gold & Bob Williams furniture manufacturer in Taylorsville, N.C.
  • The Durham City and County Results-Based Accountability Initiative, a collaboration of the Durham County Commissioners, the City Council, nearly 100 businesses and organizations and more than 300 individuals that develops and evaluates strategies to improve the quality of life in Durham in areas that include health, children, housing, neighborhoods and environment.

As part of the hearing, the Commission released data showing differences in the life-span of North Carolina residents by county. For example, the average life expectancy of residents in Robeson County is 6.6 years less than those living in Wake County, home to the state’s capital, which is just three counties away.

Additionally, the field hearing showcased first-person accounts from two families about the positive differences that opportunities in early childhood are making in the lives of their children.

Resources related to the Commission’s work are available on its Web site, www.commissiononhealth.org. Included is a report, Obstacles to Health, which describes the current health profile of Americans and looks specifically at how education, income, race and ethnicity play a role in Americans’ health.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation was established in 1936 by Robert Wood Johnson, who built the small family firm of Johnson & Johnson into one of the world’s largest health and medical care products companies. According to its Web site, the mission of RWJF is “to improve the health and health care of all Americans.”

Vernon-Feagans is the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Child Development and Family Studies at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education.