By GEOFF PENDER
The Sun Herald
D'IBERVILLE, Miss. (AP) - The physical therapist holds her hands just so on little Emilee Carco's thigh muscles, and helps the toddler go from a crouch to standing. Emilee smiles around her
pacifier, takes a few shaky steps, then shoots across the room to her mother, who's watching intently how the therapist coaxed Emily to stand.
Every child's first steps are a notable event. But in 17-month-old Emilee's case, they are extraordinary. They mark a triumph of professional care and training and her mother'sdetermination. Emilee's progress astounds even her doctors.
At about a month old, Emilee suffered a "near sudden infant death syndrome event." She was rushed to a local hospital, then transferred to two others out of state, one by air ambulance.
Doctors concluded loss of oxygen had caused severe brain damage and her mother, Anna David, said they couldn't tell her what Emilee's future would hold.
"Her brain doesn't tell her normal things that a child would be learning on their own," David said. "She had to be taught to chew, and to swallow. She has to be shown things through repetition."
David said she was nearly overwhelmed. But, she found Bright Beginnings, a program run by a local nonprofit created by service providers and parents of children with special needs. Emilee receives an hour of physical therapy and an hour of special instruction in her home each Wednesday. David is trained to continue the therapy, which she does diligently.
"It gets you motivated, gives you hope, and shows you there is something you can do to help as a parent," David said. "It has improved her quality of life.... Without Bright Beginnings, I would not have known where to start with Emilee."
Insurance covers only part of Emilee's therapy. The rest Bright Beginnings provides free.
Emilee has made remarkable progress, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that she could be ready for regular school when she's of age.
But Bright Beginnings, which helps 250 children in south Mississippi, is out of money. It shut down last week.
The program will remain closed at least through the end of the year and it could fall victim to massive cuts in the state budget, which provides the bulk of the agency's money.
The agency last week notified the special education teachers it employs that they are being laid off indefinitely, and therapy providers are furloughed at least through the end of the year - about 16 people in all. There are plans to resume limited services after the first of the year, but unless more money is found, the agency could help only about a third of those now in its case load.
The program's administrators are calling for the community's help. They're brainstorming fundraising ideas, even considering selling T-shirts. But, they admit, they know how to help children, not raise money or lobby the state for more money.
Bright Beginnings is, in part, a victim of its own success. States are federally mandated to provide "early intervention" services such as those Bright Beginnings does. Most of the cost of the services is supposed to be covered by existing resources, such as Medicaid and private insurance, but for families who do not have insurance or whose insurance doesn't cover the services, the state receives some federal money, called Payor of Last Resort funds.
Historically, however, POLR funds have fallen short of covering the costs in south Mississippi.
The state health department contracts with public and private agencies to provide the services.
Early intervention has been shown to save state and local governments money in the long term because toddlers who receive special education and therapy early on require less or no special help later when they start school.
The state Department of Mental Health previously provided such services through its "Project Prints" program. But in 2008, DMH closed the program because of state budget cuts and lack of POLR funding.
A group of service providers and parents last year founded the nonprofit Coastal Plains Interagency Coordinating Council, and the Bright Beginnings program, to restart the services.
Their reasoning was thus: Being a private entity, Bright Beginnings can accept private insurance and Medicaid payments, unlike government agencies. Being a nonprofit, it can accept donations and help from the community.
"That's what we are, a group of providers and parents trying to make things work, to help children," said Bright Beginnings Director Elisabeth Pell.
The Health Department contracted with Bright Beginnings, providing a grant of $250,000 for the fiscal year, for families who qualify for the services. Bright Beginnings was given half the funding to start, with the other half scheduled for the first of the year.
The Health Department referrals came pouring in - at a rate of 50% more than the state contract had projected. Only one-third of the children in the program have insurance that covers the services.
The state money ran out in October, so Bright Beginnings asked for the rest of its grant to cover services the children the state sent its way. The program administrators said the state assured them the funding would be forthcoming quickly.
"We were told by the Health Department, the check will be here, the check will be here," Pell said.
Judy Rowe, a physical therapist and one of the founders of the program, said the agency kept accepting children the state qualified, believing money would be coming shortly. The agency took out a $17,000 loan to temporarily cover costs.
"But what they're telling us now is that (the Health Department) has had a 13 percent budget cut, and the pool of money has been 'realigned,"' Rowe said. "They said they don't have the full amount, and may have to break what they pay in little pieces.
They've promised us a small payment soon, but not even enough to pay the providers what we owe them." Rowe and Pell said they don't want to criticize the Health Department for the funding problems.
"The system has always been broken," Rowe said. She estimates the agency should be serving about 600 qualified toddlers in south Mississippi.
Other similar programs, including those run directly by state government, have run short of money, had long waiting lists and ceased services before.
State Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, chairman of the committee that oversees the Health Department's budget, helped create the state's early intervention system.
"I'm very disappointed to hear this (about Bright Beginnings)," Holland said. "I'm learning more and more every day about what the (state budget cuts) are causing.
"This is another unfortunate story in the litany of sad stories about good government - good governmental causes - being cut. It's a travesty, and that's why I've fought so hard to maintain at least level funding for these programs and I will continue to fight.... I mean, my God, you have to save a child. How hard is that to understand?"
Bright Beginnings workers hope the community will help. Bright Beginnings has a full-time staff of five, and contracts with more than a dozen teachers and therapists. Its administration is lean - Pell and one assistant handle all the paperwork, which is mountainous for federal-state health services, and the office work.
It uses office space in the Knight Nonprofit Center. But its staff and board consists of teachers, parents and therapists - not fundraising experts.
"We need any help - volunteers, donations, organizations who could help with fundraising," Pell said.
Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) AP-NY-12-25-10 1030EST