GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A new report shows large gaps in services and funding for young children in Kent County.

First Steps Kent released its annual report Thursday morning, but 24 Hour News 8 got an early look at some of the findings.

The report concluded 99 percent of 3 year olds in Kent County are not receiving preschool services, which the group claims is due to a $28 million gap in funding.

“There are funding issues because of transportation, there are funding issues related to quality preschool, availability, and the capacity isn’t there because the funding isn’t there,” said Kate Wolters, commission co-chair for First Steps Kent.

Wolters said the 99 percent figure in the report came from a survey of hundreds of people in Kent County who provide services to children. The data was gathered from hospitals, education programs like Head Start and the Kent Intermediate School District, and public service agencies, like the Kent County Health Department. The report also relied on statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.>>Online: Re:Focus — A Gap Analysis of Early Childhood Services and Funding in Kent County (pdf)

Of the 44,500 children under five years old in Kent County, the report shows only 17,000 reportedly have public health insurance. The group defines public health insurance as health insurance found by government sources, including Medicaid and MIChild.

Claudia Jones works at one of the child care centers that partners with First Steps Kent. As a preschool assistant instructor at the GRCC Early Childhood Learning Lab and a mother of three, she has seen the benefits of preschool.

“When they’re learning how to problem solve, when they’re learning how to explore the community, when they’re learning about the different cultures that are within our world,” she said. “I think it’s great.”

There are also health benefits as well. Jones’ class follows Michigan Food Program guidelines. Meals include a vegetable, protein, grain, fruit and milk.

“Last semester was edamame. (The kids) enjoyed eating edamame. This year it’s hummus. They enjoy hummus and cucumbers,” Jones told 24 Hour News 8.

Annemarie Valdez, CEO of First Steps Kent, said that more can be done to close gaps in health and development for children.

“Screening for developmental delays is very important and we don’t do enough of that,” Valdez told 24 Hour News 8 ahead of the Thursday news conference.

Money was also a major issue highlighted in the report. It found 20,500 children under 5 years old in Kent County are in economically disadvantaged home, which the group says doesn’t allow them to get two years of early education.

“It’s pretty clear when you look at somebody that has a family of four and they make $21,000 a year, that they’re in trouble. It’s hard to make ends meet, and those are the kinds of people that were talking about that are falling through the cracks and not getting the kind of services that are needed,” said Wolters.

First Steps Kent hopes that by putting everything into perspective with this report, the community will help close those gaps.

“It takes a commitment from all of us, whether it’s us as citizens just saying, ‘Hey listen, this is important enough to our future,’ to say we’re willing to pony up a little bit more. Whether it’s our governor or county commissioner or city commission, we’ve all got to be able to say this is important enough and together we can make this happen,” said Wolters.

—–Online:First Steps Kent