You can set up children for success by putting them in the best possible early learning environment.

These young kids can have access to the best curriculum and some of the best teachers, and you can provide them with a great facility—all of which sets up an opportunity for children to be developmentally ready for kindergarten.

But, none of this will matter if the child can’t make it to class because he or she is sick.

This was something that United Way of Greater Atlanta found in early learning environments, and it’s why the Healthy Beginnings Initiative is being implemented at partner agencies in Fulton County.

In Georgia, 25 percent of children under 5 live in poverty and suffer disproportionately high mortality rates and chronic health conditions that could continue into adulthood if they are not treated. United Way places health navigators in early learning programs to ensure that children are thriving and being prepared for academic success.

At Sheltering Arms — Educare Center, in the Mechanicsville Community of Fulton County, Johnnie Thomas works as a nurse navigator, assisting students and their families to make sure that kids have access to care.

“That means a lot of different things for families,” Thomas says. “When we do health navigation, we bring in experts that have connections to families that can help them connect with providers in a low-pressure situation.

“Families start to build relationships with those health workers and community physicians.”

At Sheltering Arms, Thomas says she serves around 205 children, which means about 175 families.

Thomas said the Healthy Beginning efforts have been extended to other early learning centers, but she’s now full-time at Sheltering Arms.

Healthy Beginnings tackles a barrier in a child’s early learning experience.

“You’re not just focusing on whether or not a child can say their ABCs before they enter the school year,” Ellyn Cochran, United Way’s senior director of Early Learning and Development. “You’re focused on the whole child being ready, and part of that readiness is being present in early learning experiences.

“We started looking at what’s happening in our early learning centers, and we saw that a lot of children are missing for attendance, and so a lot of the focus on attendance comes around health education and health navigation.”

The initiative was started as a partnership with the Anne E. Casey Foundation, a foundation focused on improving child well-being, Sheltering Arms and Morehouse School of Medicine, Cochran said.

“Healthy Beginnings isn’t just about the nurse navigation piece, but the system of care for families, and when we provide high-quality early learning, we are serving the needs of those children and their families,” Cochran said. “The Healthy Beginnings program has three components — high quality learning environments, health education, which has previously been provided by Americorps, and then health navigation.”

Thomas is a Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta nurse. Thomas often helps families set up appointments with doctors, puts patients in contact with specialists and provides information about transportation. She’s been a nurse for 25-plus years, and she said she’s never been a “traditional nurse.”

Her job now is about just being there to make sure a child’s health needs are met.

“Everybody is eligible for health navigation services,” Thomas said. “We [nurses] have always been the most trusted profession. There’s something about sitting down with a nurse where people will disclose things. They feel comfortable telling me these concerns they have.”

Thomas said many of the children who come to her have been treated in “family-based” care, so they may not have been diagnosed for chronic conditions. She said she’ll meet initially with new students at Sheltering Arms, and then after that meeting, the families will have multiple opportunities throughout the day and week to stop by her office and have any of their questions answered.

Cochran said there are “exciting new developments” with the program. She said United Way has partnered now with Morehouse School of Medicine’s public health master’s program, which will provide the health education to families.

“Our hope is to work over the next year to find a way to have the services of the nurse navigator reimbursable by Medicaid,” Cochran says. “Here, we have an early learning partner that works closely with a medical school, clinical provider and community partner at United Way to say, ‘How do we provide a system to ensure that these kids start school ready?’ and part of being ready is being healthy enough to be engaged.”