Editor's note: This is the 19th in a series of stories highlighting the 21 agencies to receive United Way's annual campaign funds. The next article will run in Tuesday's edition of The Telegram.



Angelica Rojas said she first started worrying about her youngest son, Diego, when the 2-year-old wasn't making much eye contact or speaking as much as her other sons did when they were his age.

A couple of months ago, the toddler never sat still long enough to listen to his mother read a book and would oftentimes throw tantrums when someone turned off the television.

That was before early childhood specialists from Russell Child Development Center's tiny-K program stepped in.

Now, Diego sits and listens and points to the storybook pictures while his mother or others read. Now, there are times when the 2-year-old doesn't even notice when a family member turns off the television.

It's those small changes that have made a big difference in Diego's life, changes Angelica said she is very happy and thankful for.

"I'm confident now he'll be able to learn a lot more, and his development will come because he's able to focus and concentrate better," she said through the aid of a Spanish translator. "That was something that really worried me before."

Diego is just one of the hundreds of youngsters who are being served by Russell Child's tiny-K program, a set of early intervention services including occupational or physical therapy, vision or hearing screenings, and much more. They're services that are provided to families with newborns to 3-year-olds at no cost, regardless of income levels, which is why the program relies heavily on several different sources of support.

This year, the program that serves families in 12 southwest Kansas counties will be receiving $35,000 from the Finney County United Way's 2012 fundraising campaign, now under way. The United Way is aiming to raise $550,000 to benefit 21 agencies, including Russell Child's tiny-K program.

The $35,000 is an uptick from last year's United Way allocation of $30,000 and continues to benefit salaries of early intervention specialists, according to Deanna Berry, executive director of RCDC.

"We have multiple grants that help support salaries, but combined they make a huge difference," Berry said. "If we invest early, we can make a difference in the long-term outcomes of children."

During a home visit Thursday at the Rojas home in East Garden Village, Marie Morales, an early intervention teacher, worked with Diego and his mother on several reading and oral exercises.

The early interventionist, along with a team including an occupational therapist and speech and language pathologist, have been working with the toddler for about three months. During Thursday's home visit, Morales showed the toddler how to blow through a straw to move around a cotton ball, to exercise the muscles around his mouth.

The materials were left behind with the family to practice before the next visit. Morales said Diego "continues to make good progress."

"We write up a plan that includes Mom," Morales said. "Usually around his age, a kid will know 50 or so words and (will) be learning new ones every day. ... Now his mother has noticed he's very interested in books, where before he'd throw them around."

In 2010, 424 kids were involved in RCDC's tiny-K program, 239 of them from Finney County.

RCDC serves children in the following counties: Greeley, Wichita, Scott, Lane, Hamilton, Kearny, Stanton, Grant, Haskell, Morton and Stevens in addition to Finney.

Other agencies that will benefit from the 2012 United Way funds are: Finney County RSVP; Kansas Children's Service League; Catholic Social Service; Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Program; Smart Start; Playground Program; Family Crisis Services; Spirit of the Plains, CASA; The Salvation Army; Meals on Wheels; Habitat for Humanity; Garden City Family YMCA; Garden City Chapter of the Red Cross; Miles of Smiles; Santa Fe Trail Council of the Boy Scouts of America; Community Day Care Center; United Methodist Mexican-American Ministries; United Cerebral Palsy of Kansas; Big Brothers Big Sisters of Finney and Kearny Counties; and Girl Scouts of Kansas Heartland.

Russell Child Development Center

Contact: Jill Reagle, coordinator of tiny-K Early Intervention

Address: 714 Ballinger St.

Phone: 275-0364

Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday