First Things First has recognized Mary Ann Sawyer of Gilbert as the 2021 First Things First Southeast Maricopa Region Champion for Young Children.
As Arizona’s early childhood agency, First Things First funds early learning, family support and children’s preventive health services to help kids be successful once they enter kindergarten. Decisions about how those funds are spent are made by local councils staffed by community members.
The award earned by Sawyer is given to “local champions who actively volunteer their time to raise public awareness of the importance of early childhood development and health,” a First Things First spokeswoman said.
“Champions spend a significant amount of time volunteering with Arizona’s early childhood agency, First Things First and building public awareness about the importance of early childhood issues.”
Sawyer is a neonatal intensive care unit developmental specialist nurse at Banner Children’s at Desert in Mesa and Banner Gateway Medical Center in Gilbert.
She helps parents with babies in the NICU understand the importance of early childhood development and health and engaging with their babies by reading and interacting with them.
“I feel that early childhood development and health both mentally and physically is of utmost importance because it is the foundation for who a child can become later in life,” Sawyer said.
“In my training as a nurse and as a developmental specialist, I learned that early experience influences later behaviors physically and mentally.”
She said parents often “are shocked to learn that 90 percent of a child’s brain growth happens in the first five years. When we as community members teach parents of newborn babies you are your baby’s first teacher, talk to her, sing to her, hold her, read to her and enjoy her,’ we empower them.”
Sawyer talks with families during the Newborn Intensive Care Program and at the Special Care Nursery Family Support Group.
In the latter, she discusses the importance of early childhood and shares with participants First Things First information.
Sawyer also provides information about programs funded by First Things First, which many doctors and nurses have hailed as a “valuable community partner.”
She also has trained staff about soothing and comforting babies with books and music.
Sawyer also helps organize an annual reunion for families who have had babies in the neonatal intensive care unit.
The event brings together community partners to provide free early childhood education resources. Last year, a drive-thru socially-distanced parade was organized so that families would still receive information.
“Teaching parents about milestones and growth is so important,” Sawyer said. “We are helping parents see their important role too. Families thrive and so do our communities.
“My parents weren’t in the medical field, but they subscribed to this belief as well. Early childhood development and health are of utmost importance for the future of families and our communities.”
For more information about the First Things First Southeast Regional Partnership Council:
firstthingsfirst.org/regions/find-your-region and click on Southeast Maricopa Region.