By Teri Banas
EAST LANSING – Just days before Michigan’s Republican and Democratic parties hold their own conventions, the new Sandbox Party threw its inaugural convention – minus the sand – Thursday afternoon to urge Michigan’s political leaders and hopefuls to give kids the great start they deserve in life.
From Escanaba to Alpena, Ionia to Livonia, Grand Rapids to Detroit, parents, kids and all those who advocate for them arrived by car and busload – crowd estimates ranged as high as 6,000 - to usher in a new collective, political powerbase for changing the lives and futures of the state’s most vulnerable citizens, children from birth to 5.
The message that filled the rowdy basketball arena in Michigan State University’s Breslin Center and greeted both contenders for the governor’s office was this: If you want to get serious about fixing Michigan’s economy, then get serious about funding programs that help Michigan’s youngest learners enter school prepared, when it makes the most difference, so that kids grow up healthy, capable and workforce-ready. Our economic recovery is counting on it.
It was an energetic, rockin’ display of raw enthusiasm from grassroots Michigan, according to organizers. Entertainment and performances from spunky Capital Cheer cheerleaders, Zeke the Wonder dog and lively contests and music hosted by Radio Disney personalities kept spirits charged. Wandering the vendor areas and convention floor were costume-clad celebrities Curious George, Corduroy the bear and Clifford the Big Red Dog. Vendor mascots worked the crowd, too, including one odd-shaped character - Delta Dental’s “Marshall Molar,” who wore an oversized cowboy hat, badge and was armed with a toothbrush for a sidearm.
Accompanying it all was the thump, thump, thump of “thunder sticks” wielded by the thousands of children in attendance.
GOP gubernatorial candidate Rick Snyder quipped amid the din, “The sticks are popular. We could use those on the campaign trail.”
Early Childhood Investment Corporation (ECIC) CEO Judy Samelson set the tone for the high-energy event when she implored the crowd: “You guys are the future. So let’s hear it from the future of the state of Michigan!”
The audience responded by waving American flags, while the youngest conventioneers and their parents waved signs, including one saying “Better the Future, Invest in Children Today” and “I am Michigan’s future!”
Surveying the packed, noisy event, David Hollister, a former Lansing mayor and current ECIC executive committee member, said, “This is wonderful. The message is coming through and it’s substantive. We couldn’t get this group five, seven years ago, but now we have a growing awareness through the Great Start initiative. People are paying attention. The politicians are paying attention to make children a priority.”
People traveled from all over the state to be part of the first-ever Sandbox Party convention. For 46 parents and children from Delta and Schoolcraft counties in the Upper Peninsula, the journey to the front rows of the convention floor began at 9 a.m. the previous day when they loaded a bus for the eight-hour trip across the Mackinac Bridge to Lansing.
Trouble started when police stopped the vehicle for a permit issue on the St. Ignace side of the bridge, minutes before the hungry travelers were to have their on-bus picnic.
Later Wednesday, weary kids and adults arrived at their Lansing hotel to find some rooms double-booked and an empty swimming pool. Taking charge, the group’s leaders made a phone call, switched venues, and kids were swimming by dinner time.
“It’s been quite an adventure and it’s been very, very long,” said a tired but happy Tara Weaver, director of the Delta-Schoolcraft Counties Great Start Collaborative.
They wouldn’t have missed coming, Weaver added.
“We have a really active group of parents. They know if they don’t speak up for their children, no one else will.”
Sizing up the crowd, Weaver said she’s hopeful that whoever wins election this fall will get the message that families expect promises kept where their youngest learners are concerned.
“I don’t think they can ignore this. I mean, this is a huge statement these people have made today. I hope they realize how important this initiative is and that they will allow us to carry on with the important work we have with Great Start.”
Gina Taylor, 37, came with her three children, ages 6, 4, and 2, and other members of Oakland County’s Great Parents, Great Start.
Taylor considered it vital for her to be there “to show my support for early childhood initiatives and education. “I want to make sure the funding, programs and all services are available for my children.”
The sentiment was echoed by Judith Goston, who was pulling one of three red wagons loaded with sack lunches and supplies for her group of 30 children and adults from a Focus: Hope-sponsored child care center on Detroit’s west side.
“We’ve got to campaign because we’ve got to keep the money coming. I’m hoping they (the candidates) look around and see us banding together. All of us together. Look at us! We do count. We are making a difference.”