The 35th annual Missouri Child Advocacy Day at the Capitol brought advocates Thursday urging legislators to recognize the value in funding early childhood education and standing up for children across the state.
"Early childhood starts before the age of 3 or 4 - it starts prenatally," said Kate Epema, Parents As Teachers coordinator for the Jefferson City Public Schools. "Our children are our best investment, not only financially but for our future."
Children learn from parents first; therefore, parent education is equally important in order for parents to provide the best start for children, she said.
During the ceremony, the Missouri Alliance for Children, Youth and Families gave out awards to four advocates who work in the field and have dedicated themselves to working for children across the state.
Donna Scheidt, Jefferson City Day Care director, received an award for Advocate in the Trenches, with 34 years of service to the daycare under her belt.
"It's an honor to work with children for so many years, serving 150 children every year in the Jefferson City community," Scheidt said.
Kelly Schultz, director of the Office of Child Advocates, was also honored as an Advocate in the Trenches.
She told the News Tribune she was humbled to receive the award on behalf of foster parents across the state. Schultz told the audience she didn't think she deserved the award at first because her current position does not have her on the front lines, like a children's investigator or a law enforcement officer would be.
"Later, I realized as the parent of foster children I am in the trenches," Schultz said. "Foster parents are in the trenches 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and we can't get tired."
Cindy Reese, early childhood program coordinator at the Department of Health and Senior Services, received the Lifetime Child Advocate Award for working in the field more than 15 years.
Lisa Greening, executive director of a St. Louis-based nonprofit called Ready Readers, was awarded the Business Leader Advocate plaque for her work with children in the private sector.
Rep. Marsha Haefner, R-St. Louis, and Sen. Jill Schupp, D-St. Louis, also spoke at the event, discussing how they advocate for all children through policymaking.
Standing up foster children was one common mission shared by all of the advocates present at the rally.
Missouri's first lady Sheena Greitens was present at the event. Greitens said she takes child advocacy personally because she has an adopted sister.
"I believe at the core that the children in Missouri's foster care system are our children by law and in spirit," Greitens said. "I want all of them to know the governor and the first lady and all of us who gathered here today see them, will take care of them, and will fight for them."
Correction: Kate Epema's first name was incorrect and Sen. Jill Schupp's political party affiliation was misidentified in the original version of this article. The errors have since been corrected in the text above.