Cigarette Tax Helps Museum

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Berkeley city officials congregated yesterday morning at the Habitot Children's Museum, singing the praises of new funds, generated from a cigarette tax, aimed at aiding the health and well-being of children and their families.

In a brightly-colored recreational room of the museum, the Alameda County Children and Families Commission awarded $500,000 in grants to eleven community-based organizations and public agencies in Berkeley.

Founded in 1998 and dedicated to educating low-income children, the Habitot Children's Museum received $25,000 in funds, which will benefit its 60,000 annual visitors.

"Nobody is an excellent parent when they have their first baby," said Gina Moreland, director of the museum. "It takes families a long time to realize there's a problem. But it is not hard to notice when children here have a sort of behavior - we can provide referrals to other organizations to get aid."

Moreland added that the museum is currently undertaking a project concerning safety helmets for toddlers, since no preschools provide them for their students.

"There are some kids under five who are getting head injuries - about 20 a month (in Berkeley)," she said. "Some are suffering from motor and language delays."

A variety of city groups accepted their ceremonial checks yesterday at the museum, each receiving different sums from the pot of money. The funded services include family violence prevention, mental health services and parenting education.

"They were selected based upon how well the proposals (for money) were in harmony with the objectives of our program," said Mark Friedman, executive director of the commission.

The commission's plan, Every Child Counts, is born out of a need to ensure optimal health and development of young children and families, Friedman said. This must be accomplished, he said, by building an integrated, countywide system of services.

"We are very excited about bringing together all of the organizations that are grant-recipients," he said. "It is not putting money just into programs, but into the coordination of services."

The program specifically targets children under the age of five, Friedman added.

One organization, Through the Looking Glass, which provides services to disabled and deaf people, said it would be able to care for nearly twice the number of people it does now, thanks to the funds it received.

"We can now provide more services to families' needs that are not being met," said Nikki Brown-Booker, who works for the program.

The $500,000 in grants originated from Proposition 10 funds, which passed in November of 1998 and established a 50-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes. This is the first year that Berkeley received such funding, city officials said.

Full of smiles, Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean accepted the city's Public Health Department check for $100,000, the largest received among all the organizations. These funds will be directed to the program she spearheaded, the Prenatal to Preschool Initiative, which aspires to address the needs of children before they are even born.

Dean said the span from birth to five years of age was the best and most critical time to make a difference in a child's life.

"Every child is affected and we want every kid entering kindergarten healthy and motivated to learn," she said.

According to Dean, directing more time and energy to the younger children will help lessen the achievement gap that occurs later on in a student's education.

Dean cited a study from the health department showing distinct differences between the health of blacks and whites living in Berkeley.

"We can't ignore adults that need health care, but the fundamental answer is healthy children," she said. "Healthy children make healthy adults."

In addition to the $500,000 distributed yesterday, Berkeley child care providers will receive an additional $700,000 from the proposition.


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