BY SHEENA BARNETT

Daily Journal

TUPELO - The overall health, education and well-being of Mississippi's children has not changed in the last 20 years, according to Sister Donna Gunn and the Congregations for Children project.

Gunn presented a program, "Mississippi, I am YOUR Child" yesterday afternoon to members of St. James Catholic Church. According to Gunn, today's statistics about Mississippi's youth and ones from a study conducted in 1985 are virtually the same - meaning the state has made no important improvements in the lives of children in 20 years. Congregations for Children is a project that will link Catholic, Episcopal and Methodist congregations to benefit all children.

"It is a faith-based initiative that asks congregations to make children first," she said. "The statistics are alarming, are overwhelming."

Mississippi currently ranks 50th in issues such as children living in extreme poverty, child death, teen pregnancy, infant mortality, total child well-being and children living in families where neither parent has full, year-round work.

Although headway was being made in the mid- to late-1970s, the status of children began to slow and eventually decline in the 1980s and '90s. Decline in recent years is no reason to give up, Gunn said.

"We did it once, we can do it again," she said.

Congregations for Children hopes to achieve better results for children by creating a statewide or regionwide task force. A 2008 Children's Summit - similar to a successful one that took place in 1974 - is also in the works and will set an agenda for future legislation.

Gunn emphasized that poor statistics about children can't be blamed on certain government officials or political parties.

"Systems have been breaking down for decades," she said.

St. James's Father Henry Shelton said taking care of children is not about charitable giving.

"This is not about handing something down to somebody else," Shelton said. "It's about social justice, and our church is very strong on that."

More questions

Because Congregations for Children is still new, there are more questions than answers about how to take care of today's youth.

Attendees asked about state laws, how to set up task forces and the link between children and families.

Gunn admitted she didn't know the perfect answer to each question but noted that such discussions need to happen in order for positive results to take place.

On a lighthearted note, Gunn offered one more reason to take care of the state's youth: She held up a T-shirt that read, "Be nice to your kids - they'll pick your nursing home."

Contact Sheena Barnett at 678-1580 or sheena.barnett@djournal.com

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