By John Davis, Oxford Citizen
For Melissa Leach, helping the community, through education and different services that promote family, has been a long standing part of her professional life. <>
She is currently the program assistant for the Early Years Network, which is a part of Mississippi State University’s Extension Service.
Across the street from Ole Miss, and next to campus mail in the old Oxford mall, Leach serves the community through the Northwest Mississippi Resource and Referral Center.
It’s a lending library for toys and resources for parents, child care providers or for whoever wants to help in the early development of children.
“Everything we offer here is free except for our lamination services which we charge 60 cents a foot for,” Leach said. “We have teaching centers, children’s books, toys. We also serve the Northwest Mississippi area as far as training and child care providers.”
People know that the center exists, but Leach is hoping to get the word out that they do offer such things to help small children. Most of the materials on hand are perfect for children that are 5 or younger, or basically for youngsters just before kindergarten. She said that other parents spread the word about the office. Excel by Five and the United Way are other ways that the community has found out about the different things offered.
“Since last year, we’ve almost doubled the people that we have served,” Leach said. “The center has been here for a little over three years. I’ve been here for about a year and a half. Excel by Five has always been a partner with Mississippi State to get this up and running for the children and parents. They help buy a lot of the resources here, too.”
Leach said the main goal is to reach the parents of all children who don’t have the resources readily available to them.
“Parents that might be low income, they can come in and use this stuff without having to go buy it,” she said. “They can check it out for two weeks, just like a library. They can come use our equipment if they want to make letters for their children’s room or the classroom. Some of the child care providers don’t have the resources to buy all the things that they really need to help those kids learn and develop.”
In the past, Leach participated in VISTA or Volunteers In Service To America. She did a lot of work with Lena Wiley and Doors for Hope. She also helped with food drives for The Pantry.
“I also did health fairs and things like that. I did a lot of work with Excel by Five support committee and community involvement committee and the steering committee,” Leach said adding that all of it wasn’t everyday.
There have been different events in which Leach has brought together the Oxford and Lafayette school districts and some of the pastors from the community with the goal of reading to children. All of it was done to set good examples for youth moving forward.
“Honestly, anything community that will help advance people that needed assistance, affordable housing, things like that, I have always tried to be involved with,” said Leach, who is the mother of two boys. “They are now 12 and 14 and I would always take them with me to the volunteering events because I wanted them to learn about community and volunteering. Now that they’ve seen what I do and see the people in the community that need help, they have a more compassionate spirit about their community and people needing assistance. I’ve been where some of these people are. I still am somewhat but trying to move ahead. It’s important to offer assistance to those in need and to get involved in things that help promote that assistance.”
For children to have the resources that Leach is now helping with is very satisfying to her. She wants them to have a chance as she puts it.
“I want them to start off in the world with something, with skills that will help them prosper and not struggle in school later,” Leach said. “Kids from zero to 5 is when they are learning the most.
All the toys are not just to play with. Every toy we have in here is for some kind of development for a child. They may think they are just playing, but they’re developing skills. It’s important and it’s important for parents to know.”
And maybe the most surprising thing in this whole setup is the fact that Leach is actually an employee of Mississippi State.
“People are shocked by that when the find out, but the University of Mississippi has played a big part in helping with this center. They provide us with this building. The United Way helps pay some of the costs,” Leach said. “They collaborate, they work together. People see the rivalry all the time, but they also work together to help build a community of children that are learning and getting what they need.”
The seven counties that the center deals with includes Panola, Quitman, Tunica, Tate, DeSoto, Coahoma and Lafayette.
“Any of those counties can come here and use our materials,” she said. “We also provide them child care services. We also have trainers that goes out to those areas that actually teach teachers to help children develop. The center is just one big part of the network. And these centers are all over Mississippi.”
For more information on the Early Years Network can be found through www.childcaremississippi.org or by calling 1-866-706-8827.