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Actress, who grew up in West Virginia, is an activist for Save the Children

Poverty leads to cascade of problems for rural children

CNN  — 

A child in rural America has about a 1-in-4 chance of living in poverty, according the US Department of Agriculture.

The stark reality for impoverished children and the reasons why so many growing up in rural areas are missing out on childhood is detailed in the recent “End of Childhood Report” from Save the Children, a nonprofit that advocates for children’s rights.

Stolen childhoods

Save the Children reports that eight out of 10 states with the worst childhood poverty are in the Southeast, where low income, high infant mortality rates, food insecurity and teen pregnancy keep many kids from thriving.

Such obstacles hit close to home for actress Jennifer Garner, who had a middle-class upbringing in Charleston, West Virginia, but was surrounded by generational poverty. She has teamed up with Save the Children to give rural kids a fighting chance.

“I grew up one generation and one holler removed from poverty,” Garner recalled.

A leading role

Garner’s mother managed to pull herself up from an impoverished childhood with a good education. That family story prompted the Hollywood star to take a walk-on role with Save the Children a decade ago.

“This is important to me because the playing field for kids in America is not equal,” Garner said.

Her early involvement was low-key – visiting rural areas and offering hands-on help.

She’s played an increasingly visible role through the years, becoming an ambassador for Save the Children.

“She’s pushing our program and pushing for officials to make children a priority,” said Mark Shriver, the group’s senior vice president for US programs and advocacy.

Last year the actress testified on Capitol Hill about poverty’s impact on developing minds.

“A brain in poverty is up against it. … A child who is not touched, who is not spoken to, who is not read to, or touched within the first five years of his or her life will not fully recover,” she told lawmakers then.

A focus on early education

Save the Children has provided food, clothing and books to needy children since 1932. It focuses on helping kids develop their minds “to make sure they’re on the right path for success in school and life,” Shriver said. “For the littlest kids, from birth to the age of 3, we have a home-visiting program.”

The organization sends certified early childhood educators into homes to set up learning activities and teach parents how to prepare their children for lifelong learning.

“Those home visits are crucial,” Shriver said. “We’ve seen data all across the country showing that home visits, when (they’re) done well, make a profound difference.”

For rising kindergarteners, Save the Children offers a program called KinderBoost. Over 10 days, KinderBoost participants build up the fundamental skills they’ll need to be comfortable in a classroom.

‘A big boost for morale’

CNN visited Northwest Elementary School in eastern Tennessee, where Save the Children runs in-school, after-school, summer feeding and emotional health programs. The school is in Cocke County, where about 24% of the residents live in poverty, according to the US Census Bureau.

“They are poor families. They don’t have a whole lot. So what we do really makes a difference,” said Deanie Grooms, program coordinator for Save the Children.

Her husband, Shannon Grooms, is the principal at Northwest Elementary. “Save the Children has given my students ‘extra’ – extra in literacy, extra in attention. This is a big boost for morale,” he says. “It’s real important that kids in poverty know there is someone who’s got their back.”

Jessica Babb’s son Levi struggled at first when he began learning to read; now his mom can’t get him to stop after he took part in Save the Children’s in-school literacy program.

“He just took off from the moment we started. He just has this love and desire for reading that I love and admire,” Babb said.

Levi’s love of reading is a good start, and there’s no telling what his future holds.