New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Emeritus Robert M. Bennett and Dr. Debra Colley, Niagara University executive vice president (formerly dean of the College of Education), are joined by Dr. Paul Dworkin, founder and president of Help Me Grow, and Amber Slichta, vice president of the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.

Shortly after Niagara University became the first higher education institution to serve as a Help Me Grow organizing entity, its College of Education was praised by program founder Dr. Paul Dworkin as an “inspiring example of strengthening town-gown ties in support of childhood system building.”

Niagara’s incubation of the Help Me Grow child development program received similar plaudits after the university and its principal partners presented a progress report during an Oct. 28 meeting of the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York board of trustees. The foundation provided the initial funding to implement the national Help Me Grow program in Erie and Niagara counties.

“The Health Foundation for Western and Central New York is pleased to partner with Niagara University in the Help Me Grow initiative. Niagara University provides an innovative perspective to this national model by incorporating student service learning experiences that help set the stage for sustaining this important endeavor,” said Amber Slichta, vice president of the foundation. “The expertise and leadership of Dr. Debra Colley and Patti Wrobel have been invaluable as well. They have challenged the other 20-plus Help Me Grow affiliates across the country to engage with and capitalize on the academic resources in their communities, along with other academic institutions across Western New York.”

Help Me Grow, launched in 1998 by Dr. Dworkin, was conceived as a comprehensive, statewide, coordinated system to combat the effects of poverty or maltreatment through early identification and referral of children at risk for developmental and behavioral problems.

It builds collaboration across sectors, including child healthcare, early care and education, and family support. The program does not provide direct services. Rather, it is a system for improving access to existing resources and services for children through age 8.

Through comprehensive physician and community outreach and centralized information and referral centers, families are linked with needed programs and services. Ongoing data collection and analysis helps identify gaps in and barriers to the system.

Twenty-three states are currently affiliated with the program.

A 2012 study by the University of Hartford Center for Social Research evaluated the impact of Help Me Grow on children’s healthy development, concluding that “support from Help Me Grow and subsequent linkage to programs and services enhance protective factors and perhaps even mitigate risk factors. Even among families with differing needs and risks, all responded similarly and positively.”

The Rev. James. J. Maher, C.M., president of Niagara University, has, on numerous occasions, reiterated the university’s commitment to serving children and early childhood development in Western New York.

In July 2013, NU’s College of Education secured a $341,750 grant from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York to bring Help Me Grow to the region. The ultimate goal of the Health Foundation and Niagara University is to establish a statewide Help Me Grow program.

“Help Me Grow is a vehicle to work with service providers, childcare centers, school districts, pediatricians, government agencies and organizations to provide developmental screenings for children from birth to age 5,” noted Patricia Wrobel, assistant dean for external relations in NU’s College of Education. “Early detection connects children and families to available resources and intervention services that afford all children the opportunity to start pre-K/kindergarten ready to succeed.”

Help Me Grow Western New York (HMG WNY) offers:

  • Information on general child development and parenting topics.
  • Referrals to community resources, such as early intervention agencies, family therapy, literacy support, mentoring and tutoring programs, parenting classes, recreational opportunities, and more.
  • Developmental screening questionnaires, the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ), for children ages 0 to 5 years.
  • Personalized care coordination to ensure that families successfully connect with resources.
  • Developmental activities for parents to use at home.

In addition to connecting families to community resources, HMG WNY creates partnerships within the community to improve the availability and quality of services for families. The United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, United Way of Greater Niagara, 211WNY, and Child Care Resource Network serve as principal partners in the continuing evolution of HMG WNY, thereby establishing a coordinated and collaborative communitywide effort with broad support.

The program complements the College of Education’s grant-funded Niagara County Early Child Care Quality Improvement Project, as well as the Positive Emotional Development and Learning Skills (PEDALS), another early childhood development program supported by the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.

To date, Niagara University has trained more than 300 local students in the human services fields to administer Ages & Stages Questionnaires, as well as 174 pre-K teachers employed by Buffalo Public Schools. Nearly 1,100 children in Erie and Niagara counties have been screened, with results showing that greater than 50 percent of the pre-K students screened in Buffalo provided some basis for monitoring.

“We appreciate the partnership with the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York, and other agencies that serve the community, as we continue to develop innovative approaches to positively impact the lives of children and their families,” said Dr. Chandra Foote, interim dean of Niagara University’s College of Education, which offers bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in early childhood development. “Every child should enter kindergarten ready to learn and succeed in school, and this program will help them to do so.”

To learn more about Help Me Grow Western New York, visit

Information on the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York can be obtained at