Doing good: The genesis of the Urban Child Institute

Imagine a think tank full of Memphis’ premiere doctors and medical research scientists.  What would they discuss?  With resources at their disposal, which of the city’s health problems would they strive to solve?

Twenty years ago, this kind of collective brain power tackled a tough question: how can we make Memphis better. Dr. Henry "Hank" Herrod recalls the formation of doctors and faculty from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and the University of Memphis.  “Originally, we called ourselves LHS and we set out to make Memphis a better place.”  

The goal was simple in statement, but complex in execution.

Dr. Herrod, former Endowed Chair in Pediatrics for Le Bonheur Children's Hospital and Dean of the College of Health Sciences at the University of Tennessee Center, alongside Gene Cashman, the then CEO of Le Bonheur, and many other scientists raised funds and began to work on the ambitious goal.

Their areas of focus were noble but broad: domestic violence, child abuse, teen pregnancy, and violence.  “We spent a whole lot of money over a ten year period giving to organizations whose daily life blood was working with these issues,” recalled Dr. Herrod.

But after years of investment, measuring their success was difficult. "It was hard to really show what our money was doing.  We were sure that our money was being used to help individual people.  But no data was being collected. There was a lack of measurement tools. And it would have been very costly for such a non-profit to put together a data based evaluation team.”

Cashman and Herrod continued to ponder what the scientific strengths of Memphis were, and how those could be put to good use. “We asked ‘where are the greatest strengths in Memphis in terms of child related issues, or scientific strengths in general’?” Herrod said.
This thinking was the impetus for what is now the Urban Child Institute.

Research at Le Bonhuer and St. Jude Children’s Hospital, the presence of Semmes Murphey Clinic, and the then current trends at UT Medical School made it clear—the field of neuroscience was strong in Memphis.  

Following the strengths the community already possessed, the board became interested in research on brain development in early childhood.  

“There was a whole lot of research that had been published that was not widely known outside of those fields,” said Herrod.  “We then became aware of studies that had clearly shown that the right kind of interventions with at-risk children could alter their outcomes for the better.”  

This at-risk status is measured by a host of things:  school performance, interactions with the justice system, and assistance by welfare, to name a few.  “When you combine those studies with the neuroscience, we thought a place like Memphis where we have a high proportion of kids who, using objective measurements, would fit into a category of being high-risk, we need to make this community more aware about the importance of this research.”

Thus, the current incarnation of the Urban Child Institute was born.  They no longer invested money in a wide variety of programs—the vision was narrowed to a “laser-like focus” on one topic. Zeroing-in on interventions at a time when the human brain exhibits its most elasticity, the non-profit aimed to take this knowledge and research and turn it into meaningful action that changed existing policies and in turn, changed lives.

The new vision would center on fostering and funding research and studies in Memphis.  Then, just as importantly, share that information with the public.

Narrowing the focus seemed to open doors.  Additionally, Dr. Herrod also acknowledges the importance of collaboration and sponsorship of true experts—talented scientists to help create an early childhood neuroscience epicenter in Memphis.  

Fully embodying their vision is the CANDLE study, a comprehensive investigation of the separate and combined effects of the mother's prenatal actions, the home environment and childhood experiences, the exposure to potentially harmful toxins, and the genetic make-up of the child on his/her brain development from birth to three years of age. The study follows a child from the second trimester in the womb to four years of age.  

The CANDLE studies have put Memphis on the map in respect to the national psychological field. CANDLE collects data that combines pair social, emotional, and cognitive findings with biological specimens like blood, placental tissue, cord blood.  Cut hair at each age is examined for levels of cortisol (a hormone secreted by the body when under stress), providing a barometer for stress throughout the years.  Paired with the social emotional surveys and the DNA laden blood and tissue samples, the scientists are hoping to make correlations between gene expression and the stress endured by children aged 0 to 3.  

Interest in this data is not contained in Tennessee. Collaborators from the University of California at San Francisco, the University of British Columbia, the University of North Carolina, and others are becoming involved in the study.

“Many scientists are extremely interested in coming in and taking advantage of the sets of data we’ve acquired—a lot of really smart people researching smart ideas.  What’s great for us [Memphis] is that they are basically helping us learn more about Memphis in the process.”

One of the most unique aspects of the research is the diversity of the subjects. “Memphis is such a diverse community.  We have black, white, rich, poor, and Hispanic populations, and CANDLE was designed to specifically capture those demographics.  Very few longitudinal studies have looked at these different populations in a cross comparison across a single community.”

Another important shift was that these studies focus on social and emotional development.  Typically, these types of studies focus on cognitive development.  “We’ve found that social-emotional development tends to track very closely with cognitive development.  But we feel like looking more closely at social-emotional development will have a more lasting impact for our community in particular.”  

Funding these types of research projects falls in line with the original goal of making Memphis a better place.  “If good things can happen to these young children, then we’re going to have a much more productive adult workforce down the line.”

The other and perhaps more vital component of what the experts at the Urban Child Institute are aiming to do is to disseminate all of these findings to the public, especially to those who live in areas of high-risk.  

UCI devotes many of its resources for this purpose by way of an interactive website, developing linkages with like-minded organizations, television and radio PSAs. They also invest in presentations for the public, leadership groups, church groups, and medical experts.

“We have been focused on the five target audiences that we call the five P's:  parents, child care providers, professionals, policy makers, and other philanthropies.”  Going forward, they are looking to narrow their focus again by dropping the last three from the list.

“Parents and other child care providers, that’s where the action is,” Herrod said. “The first teacher is the parent, and the first classroom is the home.  Our thought is that if we can get the right message in the right modality to the right people in the community, we can make Memphis a better place.”

Read more articles by Kate Crowder.

Kate Crowder is a freelance writer and veteran educator who has taught for over a decade in public schools. The longtime Memphian and mother of three is frequently found on the stage as musician, actor, or director when not filling her role as contributor and Assistant Editor at High Ground News.
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