It goes without saying, 2020 has been difficult. Virtually every part of our lives has been touched by the pandemic. For many, COVID-19 resulted in the tragic loss of a loved one. For others it caused the loss of jobs or financial stability. For all, COVID-19 altered the way we socialize, go to work, go to school, support loved ones who are ill, and even the way we view time. How can we plan ahead when the future seems uncertain?
The truth is the future has always been uncertain at least to a degree. Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist has said “many people are alive but don’t touch the miracle of being alive” and “the present moment is the only time over which we have dominion.” Hanh’s teaches that through mindfulness, we can learn to live happily in the present moment.
If there were ever a time to practice living in the present moment, 2020 is it. Both Americans and citizens of the world have faced great challenges this year, much of which was outside our personal spheres of control. So how does one find happiness in an uncontrollable world? According to Harvard researcher Matt Killingsworth, “mind wandering is likely a cause, and not merely a consequence, of unhappiness.” Killingsworth’s research, that aggregates data from 15,000 people, across 80 countries, of various ages and income levels, suggests mind wandering has a more significant effect on happiness than other factors like income, education, gender, and marital status. Again, research suggests the practice of “mindfulness” is a simple (and free) way to keep the mind from wandering and increase happiness.
So, what is mindfulness? According to the Mayo Clinic, “mindfulness is a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment … Spending too much time planning, problem-solving, daydreaming, or thinking negative or random thoughts can be draining. It can also make you more likely to experience stress, anxiety and symptoms of depression. Practicing mindfulness exercises can help you direct your attention away from this kind of thinking and engage with the world around you.” Research shows mindfulness reduces stress, anxiety, pain, depression, insomnia and hypertension. In addition, it has been shown to improve attention, decrease job burnout, and improve sleep.
In addition to meditation, there are simple ways to practice mindfulness in our everyday lives. To be mindful we must slow down and pay attention by using all five senses to experience things. We should try to live in the moment and find joy in very simple pleasures. We should accept ourselves as we would a good friend. Finally, to ward off negative thoughts we should pause, sit, and concentrate on our breaths as they enter and exit our lungs.
In addition to mindfulness, studies show those who practice gratitude are happier than those who do not. The simple act of giving thanks could also help increase happiness. Rather than giving thanks just one day in November, challenge yourself to practice mindfulness and gratitude several times each week throughout the month. While these simple actions will not instantly erase all the hardships of 2020, they just might bring you more joy. Seems like a chance worth taking.
Despite 2020’s hardships, North Louisiana remains a very generous community. In addition to giving thanks, many also want to give back. This year more than ever people have asked me what they can do to help others. For those with the ability to be generous, there is no more effective gift than educating our youngest citizens. Nobel Prize winning University of Chicago Economics Professor James Heckman’s research shows that high-quality, birth-to-five early childhood education provides a return on investment or ROI of 13%.
Most recent data show nearly 60% of the children in Shreveport and Bossier enter school not kindergarten ready. This is a serious but preventable problem. Experts now know 90% of brain development occurs from age 0 to age 5. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, while genes provide the basic blueprint, experiences shape the process that determines whether a child’s brain will provide a strong or weak foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health. “Healthy development in the early years (particularly birth to three) provides the building blocks for educational achievement, economic productivity, responsible citizenship, lifelong health, strong communities, and successful parenting of the next generation.” To secure a strong future, our community must focus on our youngest assets, our children.
The Louisiana Department of Education reports that statewide 86% of economically disadvantaged 4-year olds have access to quality early learning versus only 1% of infants, 6% of toddlers and 26% of 3-year olds. Luckily, the Louisiana Childcare Assistance Program, or CCAP, provides financial assistant to low-income families (while parents are working or attending school) for high quality childcare. However, in the fall of 2019, while 842 children in Caddo Parish enrolled in the CCAP program, there were still 188 on the wait list. We owe these children a seat at the early childhood table.
In 2017 the Legislature established Louisiana Early Childhood Education Fund. Beginning in 2021, the state fund will match local, private funds raised for quality early childcare. It will provide a dollar for dollar match for every local dollar raised. If we as a community pool our resources, we can maximize the matching dollars received from the state to send even more children ages 0 to 3 to high quality programs. This will change the lives of children and their families and positively affect the future of our entire community.
Community Foundation of North Louisiana issues the following challenge: Caddo Parish must raise $1 million in private donations to allow more children to attend quality early education programs. If area businesses and citizens raise $900,000, CFNLA will contribute the last $100,000! CFNLA will then seek the state match with all proceeds raised. Every dollar raised will be used to scholarship children into quality early education programs.
Access to safe and quality childcare not only enhances a child’s future but advances economic opportunities now for their parents and caregivers. There can be no greater investment for our community than in our youngest citizens who ironically have no problem living in the moment!
To join us so all children have equal access to early childcare and education, please consider donating online or by mail to the Early Childhood Education Fund at Community Foundation of North Louisiana, 401 Edwards Street, Suite 105, Shreveport, LA 71101. For more information, please call: (318) 221-0582.
This article was written by CFNLA CEO Kristi Gustavson and originally published in the Shreveport Times on November 1, 2020.