Smart Start chief focuses on kids

By Bart Ganzert

Being a minister’s daughter didn’t just teach Karen Ponder that service is an essential part of living life; it taught her that life is service.

That basic belief has defined the career path that led her from preschool teacher to president of Smart Start, North Carolina’s early-childhood-development initiative.

And a recent $5 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has added intensity and insurance to her vision and mission.

“Service was always expected,” she says of growing up in a rural community in South Carolina.  “I was able to see the way a community responds to each other and to its children.”

That early influence led Ponder to her teaching career and then to co-found a partnership to train teachers in early-childhood programs.

During that time, she developed a hope and vision that she could help ensure opportunities for children to develop in a responsive and supportive community.

That commitment continued to grow, she says, and as she watched her own children grow and develop, she saw in her teaching how critical the early years are for a child’s future.

“Seeing my children learn, and to recognize how important it was, that’s what captured me,” she says.

Karen Ponder

Job: President, North Carolina Partnership for Children (Smart Start)

Born: June 21, 1943

Family: Husband; two children; five grandchildren

Recent favorite book: “Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China,” by Jung Chang

Inspiration: Deep religious faith and the belief that everyone should give back to the community

Though personally rewarding, Ponder’s early work taught her that a larger more-focused effort was needed to be able to reach all children.She got that opportunity in 1993, when Smart Start, a nonprofit organization with a mission to boost early-childhood development throughout North Carolina, was launched by then-Gov. Jim Hunt.“Working for a nonprofit fits with [my personal] mission,” she says.  “I feel privileged to be involved in it.”

Ponder’s leadership has helped the agency grow throughout the state, and as a resource for other states initiating such organizations.

The Kellogg grant has added reward and momentum to those efforts.

“The future of the initiative is bright,” she says. “The grant has given us the opportunity to do more work with our partnerships. I believe we are on the cusp of new momentum and accomplishments.”

Smart Start is now in the planning stages for exactly how the grant money will be used, but Ponder says it will go to develop the program’s local partnerships and to fund a national assistance center to help other states.

“Seeing a child learn and engage with a mom or dad is very inspiring,” she says. “That’s what I want for every child, to have the opportunity to grow and develop in a positive way.”

The grant gives Ponder the opportunity to step back and assess what Smart Start has achieved to date and what must be done to take it to the next level, she says.

“Developing a new cadre of strong, visionary leaders for young children and their families over the next five years will allow Smart Start to achieve its full potential to ensure that all children in our state arrive at school healthy and prepared for success,” she says.

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