When we started our KIDS COUNT Power Lunch series, we knew there were wonderful child advocates doing great things for families across Oklahoma, and our visit to McAlester last week really solidified that belief.

The event provided insightful discussion among a very diverse group of organizations represented, including the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations, OKDHS, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, and the Department of Juvenile Affairs.

McAlester Power Lunch
McAlester KIDS COUNT Power Lunch Crowd

With the theme of the day being storytelling for advocacy, the Community Conversation Panel, once again, stole the show. The Panel was made up of State Representative Brian Renegar, McAlester Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Marsha Gore, and Tricia Howell, OKDHS Deputy Director for Region 4.

Rep. Renegar kicked off the conversation with a very personal story about raising his grandson that brought everyone to tears. He discussed HB1919 that was passed into law during the last legislative session which offered a tax credit to foster parents. He plans on proposing similar legislation this session that would do the same for grandparents who have legal custody of a grandchild. He recognizes the struggles faced by those fostering children and wants to make that experience a little easier for parents. He stated drugs in the area are the number one problem facing children and families in Pittsburg County, and he plans on proposing legislation this session that would make it harder to produce methamphetamine.

What a leader to have representing Pittsburg County children in the legislature!

We then heard from Tricia Howell, who shared her perspective on issues from her more than 30 years of experience with OKDHS. She discussed the Pinnacle Plan and the improvements that will come with the transition to that new structure. She explained the three primary focus areas for OKDHS right now: keeping children out of shelters; increasing resources to families; and recruiting more staff. She explained that prevention is the huge piece of the puzzle that we are not currently doing well enough. In just three years, child removals more than doubled in the region, with nearly every one of those cases being drug related. Looking out at the crowd, she said adamantly,

“If we can get the substance abuse problem under control, we will see big changes.”

Finally, Dr. Marsha Gore described pressing issues for students within McAlester Public Schools. On average 78% of students in the district are living in poverty with two schools in the district having a 100% poverty rate among students. These statistics have created unique problems for students and teachers. The district is struggling to fund programs that are badly needed to
meet the needs of this special population, such as free school breakfast programs, expanded alternative learning programs, special education, and parenting education through programs like Oklahoma Parents as Teachers, which lost its funding this year.  The district has also seen an influx of children living in foster care with many experiencing emotional disturbances or behavioral disorders requiring counseling.

These problems are not unique to McAlester, and are faced every day in schools and communities across the state. It was such an honor to hear from these experts. All three exhibit such a passion for creating better futures for children, and offered wonderful insights into ways we can all work together to #BeAVoice for children!

McAlester Power Lunch Panel
McAlester KIDS COUNT Power Lunch Panel

Before wrapping up, Rep. Renegar reiterated the importance of building a relationship with your legislators. “Call or stop by your legislator’s office. Get to know them; have them get to know you,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to contact us; we aren’t special people. We want to hear from you!”

We couldn’t be more thrilled with the success of the KIDS COUNT Power Lunch series thus far. The stories told have been inspiring and the connections made are strengthening the advocacy network for children across the state.

We still have one more stop in Lawton on Wednesday, Sept. 25th, and we would love for you to come and share the important issues in your community. If you haven’t registered yet, there’s still time. Hope to see you there!

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