April 17, 2024

It Takes a Village to Make a Great Start

The who, what, where, when, why, and how of Great Start Collaborative of Traverse Bay
By Anna Faller | Feb. 24, 2024

Recent population data reflects that there are more than 7,000 children between the ages of zero and five in the five-county region (Benzie, Antrim, Kalkaska, Leelanau, and Grand Traverse). Making sure that those kids and their families have access to the resources they need takes a village—or rather, a community network.

This is where the Great Start Collaborative (GSC) of Traverse Bay comes in. Established locally in 2008, GSC serves all families with children from birth through eight years old in its five-county span and works to build systems that support quality early childhood care.

“Our mission is to ensure that every child has a great start in life, and that they have equitable opportunity to reach their highest potential,” GSC Traverse Bay Coordinator Robin Hornkohl explains.


Every community in Michigan is equipped with a Great Start Collaborative system. In the Traverse Bay region, that network comprises upwards of 75 members and partners, including: schools and educational services, like North Ed; medical and behavioral resources; nonprofits, like United Way of Northwest Michigan; public recreation hubs; administrators, caregivers, and countless others.

Further, a whopping 20 percent of the group’s membership represents parents, who provide an authentic voice for the ideas the collaborative helps incite. Alongside GSC, Great Start Parents offers a volunteer network for parents of young children to connect, lead individual projects, and advocate for needed childcare services.

“We know that caring for young children requires all voices. The Great Start Collaborative is all about the community holding [that work],” Hornkohl adds.


The core of the collaborative’s mission is directly connected to the state of Michigan’s four Early Childhood Outcomes:

1. That children are born healthy; 2. That they’re healthy, thriving, and developmentally on track from birth to third grade; 3. That they’re developmentally ready to succeed in school when they enter; and, 4. That they’re ready to succeed in fourth grade and beyond by attaining literary proficiency by the end of third grade.

Those goals, though they may seem straightforward, aren’t so easy to achieve and often look different for different people.

To help spot unmet community needs, GSC supplements its outreach with Kids Count Data. This data is made up of community demographics, WIC usage (that’s a supplemental nutrition program for low-income women and young children), poverty levels, and abuse and neglect statistics.

From there, group members collaborate through action teams to implement new ideas and systems. In northern Michigan’s communities, the legwork is carried out through three core initiatives, each with programs tailored towards achieving one or more of the aforementioned goals.

Those initiatives are 5toOne, Child Caring Now, and the School Readiness Committee.

5toOne: Launched in 2014, 5toOne is designed to strengthen and educate families by connecting them to early childhood resources. Its offshoots include local playgroups hosted through partnered Neighborhood Centers as well as access to tools like Help me Grow Michigan (a hub of family-based resources), connections to preschool and childcare support, and at-home developmental assessments.

Another key element of 5toOne is the system’s early literacy efforts, which involve both national campaigns—notably, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and Talking is Teaching—as well as local programs, like Books from Birth.

“It’s an all-encompassing initiative that was intended and developed to be a recognizable portal for quality early childhood experiences for families,” GSC Family Liaison Missy Smith notes.

Child Caring Now: To reduce the increasing number of northern Michigan families with childcare needs, the Child Caring Now (CCN) initiative formed in spring 2022. It involves a network of childcare providers, elected officials, and organizational partners working to advance childcare access.

This means reducing service costs, which, according to Kids Count Data, averages $700 per month for each child. Other goals include expanding mentorship opportunities, implementing support for caregivers, and bolstering the workforce by streamlining programs for early childhood educators.

School Readiness Committee: The GSC’s third and final initiative is the School Readiness Committee, which unites parents, caregivers, and educators in laying the groundwork for school-preparation benchmarks.

According to last available statewide data, less than 40 percent of students in North Ed’s five-county region arrived ready for school, and the percentage of children who didn’t attend preschool in the last three years is on the upswing.

To close that gap, the School Readiness Committee aims to establish developmental best practices and implement them in local communities as well as increase access to literacy materials.


Though GSC facilitates services throughout the northern Michigan region, not all of its members and partnered organizations participate in the same way.

“That’s intentional, so that people are able to find how their piece fits into this puzzle,” says Hornkohl. It does, however, mean that events and meeting spaces often change in relation to how members engage.

There are a few consistent players, though. Many 5toOne Neighborhood Center partners, for instance—including the Great Lakes Children’s Museum, Grow Benzie, and Interlochen Public Library—are committed to holding physical space for community activities through the GSC network.

As for when to get involved? “Prenatally,” Smith suggests with a laugh.

Though entering the “childcare tunnel” before that child is born might sound excessive, Smith highlights that—for first-time parents, especially—that’s when it’s easiest to assess what you need. Pinpointing gaps in information can be an uphill battle for many new families who are introduced to resources at birth but don’t realize their needs until months or years later.

That being said, Hornkohl reiterates that it’s never too late to tap into the GSC network. “We’d love for everyone to understand this work and be involved from the very beginning, but we understand that needs are unique,” she adds. “Whenever someone is ready, we’re here and ready to welcome them.”


From kindergarten to adulthood and beyond, getting that great start really is critical.

For starters, studies have shown that the first five years of human development lay the foundation for the rest of a child’s life. When we support young children through the lens of healthy and safe caregiving experiences, we’re not only setting them up for school but also giving them the framework to build productive relationships as they grow, Hornkohl notes.

Neural connections are another biggie. In fact, 70 percent of human brain development, which is vital for stability and future health outcomes, takes place as the result of the care and nurturing we receive as young children.

In other words, we really are counting on our communities to help us forge a successful path.

“We know we do better as humans overall when we support people from the very beginning,” Hornkohl adds. “There really is a unique opportunity here to make a big difference with very little effort.”


To get connected, both experts agree that showing up within the GSC space is a good first step. For new GSC families, Smith recommends connecting with a collaborative member, going to a playgroup session, or attending a Great Start Parents meeting.

“It doesn’t have to be anything bigger than saying, ‘Hi, I’m here,’” she explains. “I think once families understand the opportunities that exist, they become more engaged organically.”

From there, the collaborative’s weekly digital newsletter, which offers information and planned events, is a great way to keep up with GSC’s endeavors. Attending coalition meetings or reaching out to Neighborhood Centers are also quick ways to enter the pipeline.

For more information or to get involved in the Great Start Collaborative Grand Traverse Bay, visit helpmegrow-mi.org/northwest.


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