By Lora Scripps
Melanie Bridgeforth has always been drawn to helping others — especially children.
The Athens native was recently named the executive director of VOICES for Alabama’s Children.
“Children are powerless because they have no voice and have no vote,” Bridgeforth said. “They are virtual afterthoughts, at best, in the political process. They obviously lack the capability to represent themselves before decision making bodies such as the Alabama Legislature, or the various state agencies that adopt regulations day in and day out, which impact their lives.”
Bridgeforth said that is where an organization like Montgomery-based VOICES for Alabama’s Children comes in. “We speak on their behalf to the decision makers and institutions who have the power to give us the change we seek and our children need,” she said. “Through advocacy, we as an organization and quite frankly each of us individually, can help level the playing field for our children.”
In her role as executive director, Bridgeforth will serve as the organization’s lead spokesperson and chief legislative liaison as well as serve on numerous statewide councils including the State Children’s Policy Council, the state Early Childhood Advisory Council and the board of directors for the Alabama School Readiness Alliance.
Bridgeforth, the daughter of John Bridgeforth and Catherine Bridgeforth of Athens, is a 2000 graduate of Athens High School and received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Alabama. She has a master’s degree in social work with a concentration in public policy and administration.
VOICES for Alabama’s Children was established in 1992 by leading child advocates in the state. The organization was the first, and remains the only, organization to document the conditions of children in each of the state’s 67 counties. VOICES focuses on the issues that matter most to children in families: health, safety, education and economic security.
Using information from resources such as Alabama Kids Count, VOICES works to help Alabamians understand the current conditions of the state’s children, what can be done to improve those conditions and what it means to the state if conditions don’t improve.
In 1992 — the year VOICES was created — KIDS COUNT National Data Book ranked Alabama 48th in the nation in overall child well-being. In 2013, KIDS COUNT ranked Alabama 44th, its best ranking to date.
“On behalf of the board of directors of VOICES for Alabama’s Children, I am delighted to welcome Melanie Bridgeforth as the new executive director and I’m confident that she is just what our organization needs to help move the needle, beginning with this critical legislative session,” board president Judge John Rochester said. “Her experience, passion, energy and demonstrated leadership in child advocacy will help build on our recent successes and pave the way for future ones.”
Bridgeforth is no stranger to the organization. Prior to working most recently as the government relations director with the American Heart Association, Bridgeforth served as policy analyst for VOICES, overseeing public policy, research, grassroots and legislative activities.
Though VOICES for Alabama’s Children monitors all legislation impacting children, Bridgeforth already has a list of VOICES top priorities in the upcoming legislative session.
A child’s readiness for school is one of those priorities.
“Getting off to a great start in the early years makes a keen difference in how children succeed in school and in life,” Bridgeforth said. “Research shows that high-quality pre-K programs have a huge impact on a child’s readiness for school.” VOICES for Alabama’s Children will continue advocacy to increase state investments in first class pre-K by $12.8 million, according to Bridgeforth. “Pre-K works and we will continue urging the Alabama Legislature to invest wisely by investing in our children,” she said.
Bridgeforth also plans to address the unhealthy weight of children in the state.
“Unhealthy weight for children is a growing problem in our country and especially in the Southeastern states, including Alabama,” Bridgeforth said. “Roughly 35 percent of Alabama’s children are considered either overweight or obese, conditions putting them at increased risk for what were traditionally thought of as adult diseases.”
Bridgeforth said improved child nutrition and consumption of healthy foods could help reverse the devastating trend among children. “The simple truth is many Alabama families are unable to access such foods. This issue will be new to VOICES for Alabama’s Children’s policy agenda, but we are eager to begin educating Alabama decision makers on the policy option to increase supermarket and healthy food retail access in underserved rural and urban communities throughout our state.”
With 2014 being an election year, Bridgeforth encourages residents across the state, Limestone County and Athens alike to ask elected officials and candidates from the area one simple question, “Is it good for kids?”
Bridgeforth said challenge them and hold them accountable to ensure the decisions they make moving forward and the priorities they set are good for Alabama’s children.
“I am humbled and overjoyed to be back home and at the helm of an organization that has truly helped shape child advocacy as we know it in Alabama,” Bridgeforth said. “Having the opportunity to lead Alabama’s longest-standing child advocacy organization is nothing short of a dream come true. I look forward to working with our partners and decision makers to secure a better future for Alabama by investing in our most precious asset — our children.”