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Amanda Smothers calms her 2-year-old son Mason Snider by showing him a cartoon he loves on her cell phone at Signal Centers Monday, July 31, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Smothers enrolled her family in Baby University, and through Purposity, she will be receiving diapers for her son.

JaLonnie Mack was 15 and pregnant with nowhere to turn.

Then, she found Baby University.

"Baby University always came," she said. "Whatever I needed, it was there."

It is difficult to overstate this moment. What could have happened versus what didn't.

Across the state, mothers in Mack's position often encounter a long string of heartbreak: a difficult pregnancy, missed appointments, low birth weight, prenatal care, developmental delays, underemployment, classroom troubles, missed graduation, homelessness, dreams lost.

But not Mack.

Five years ago, her son — healthy — was born. In 2018, she graduated high school. Today, she's in college, studying to become a judge. And her children? (She since gave birth to a second child.)

"Beautifully," she said.

Since 2015, Baby University — or Baby U – pairs one of eight case managers with local families. According to Signal Centers, which coordinates the program, nearly 2,000 Chattanoogans — teens, adults, infants, families, referrals — have been supported by Baby U.

"Decades of data have shown what happens in our earliest, most formative years, whether good or bad, truly sets the foundation for the rest of our lives," said Elizabeth Cotellese, director of Baby University.

Inspired by Harlem's Promise Zone, Baby U was former mayor Andy Berke's idea to surround families with care, reversing a trend that showed some 25 percent of local children aren't ready for kindergarten.

Baby U babies are nurtured from womb to classroom.

"Eighty to 90 percent of brain development structure is formed by age 3. So this period of rapid development offers the greatest return on investment for our youngest children," Cotellese said.

Case managers give mothers and fathers rides to doctor's appointments, the pharmacy, the grocery. Prenatal care is abundant.

They help provide diapers, car seats, baby food, dishes, clothes, pack-n-plays, toys.

They are a shoulder to cry on, an ear to hear, a heart to celebrate. They offer help applying for jobs, or college, or finding therapy and additional services.

"We know that premature babies have more frequent hospitalizations and triple the chance of needing special-ed services and potentially lifelong health problems. We know that stress passes through the placenta to the unborn child," Cotellese said. "We want to help parents connect to concrete resources that help mitigate crises and reduce stress."

Parents and case managers work to meet all healthy milestones. Stress decreases. Children are ready for kindergarten. Job security increases. Families move through a tiered system. Weekly meetings, then monthly, quarterly, as goals are met. Then, they graduate.

It is local government and social services at their best.

And it may not survive.

City Hall is currently preparing its upcoming budget.

Will Mayor Tim Kelly fund Baby University?

He should. Baby University has proven itself one of the most effective programs in Hamilton County.

Numbers tell a powerful truth. According to research done by the University of Tennessee's College of Social Work:

- 100% of Baby U babies receive prenatal care. Statewide, only 59% of Tennessee babies do.

- 97% of recent Baby U babies were born at healthy birth weight.

- 91% of Baby U teen parents were enrolled in school, graduated or earned high school equivalency. Nationally, only 53%.

- Baby U families are more stable and struggle less. Job security increases, food vulnerability decreases.

Five years of Baby U has cost $3.2 million, the study states.

Yet it saves nearly three times as much money.

The impact of Baby U on reducing long-term hospitalization, special services, joblessness, homelessness and other social ills?

A cost savings of nearly $11 million, according to the study.

Over five years, Baby U has cost $3.2 million, yet saved nearly $11 million.

"Baby U, therefore, represents a wise investment of community funds," the study concludes.

If you agree, please let City Hall know: 423-643-7800 or mayor@chattanooga.gov.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.

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