Anne Gearity, a veteran child-development expert, dropped by a Minneapolis grade-school class recently, startling a daydreaming student.

The boy then cursed at her.

Gearity, an empathetic listener, sat down and said, "I startled you. My name is Anne."

They had a nice chat. At the end, the lad said: "Goodbye, Ms. Anne."

Gearity was dealing with a public-school clientele she knows well: impoverished and from a tough-talking, sometimes-abusive home that doesn't value civility, much less education.

"Thriving communities cannot afford so many children living in poverty," Gearity said. "We have to shift from blaming [children] to protecting them."

Gearity's audience was a dozen business people who showed up at 7 a.m. Thursday to learn more about childhood development. Their aim: building healthier kids and families, who are ready for school and life among the 20 percent or so of kids who live in poverty and/or have mental-health issues. Many lack the attention, good parenting and other assets that will help them become healthy learners and productive citizens.

"I have no idea what to do about this," said Tricia Dirks, chief human-resources officer of Minneapolis-based Sleep Number, the manufacturer and retailer of high-tech beds. "This is way bigger than I thought. How do we raise the level of engagement?"

Minnetonka-based St. David's Center for Child & Family Development, which for 50 years has worked around the Twin Cities with special-needs families, this spring opened the Harman Center for Child & Family Wellbeing.

The 10,000-square-foot facility is contained in a new building owned by Westminster Presbyterian Church at 12th Street and Marquette Avenue.

The morning meeting last week didn't come up with any silver-bullet solutions to the challenging problems of poverty, abusive homes, childhood trauma that hurts kids and communities, and an overwhelmed child-protection system.

But the business people learned about promising initiatives and how they could engage.

And St. David's, which works with 3,000-plus families annually, is going to be part of the solution at its new downtown facility, thanks largely to Senior Pastor Tim Hart-Andersen and a very supportive congregation. Westminster wanted an impactful nonprofit tenant, and it's leasing part of the stylish, functional building at a bargain-basement rate.

The Harman Center for Child & Family Wellbeing, named for the late St. David's therapist Scott Harman, will work with up to 300 families annually, regardless of income, in a well-appointed space that is accessible by the public. Services at Harman Center include early-childhood mental-health services, pediatric therapies, a day treatment for children who have faced trauma, and the East African Autism day-treatment programs.

"Investing in our youngest and most vulnerable citizens is critical," St. David's CEO Julie Sjordal said recently. "And investing early in children offers the greatest hope and the greatest return. Access to the right mix of services for the whole family will achieve the best possible results."

She's not kidding.

In 2003, Art Rolnick, then chief of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, concluded from research and other studies that the best public investment we make is getting kids ready for kindergarten — whether special needs, middle class or impoverished.

The research found up to a $16 return for every $1 invested to help low-income children access high-quality early-learning programs. Kids prepared for school are more likely to finish high school and be ready for training, employment or college, and less likely to require spending for social services, unplanned pregnancies, unemployment, crime and prison.

"The research is clear — investing a little now saves taxpayers a lot later," Rolnick said earlier this year. He continues to work in semiretirement on the "human capital" side of economics.

Business people increasingly are interested, including Downtown Council CEO Steve Cramer, executives from Thrivent Financial and Target who showed up at St. David's the other day.

This is a moral issue. It's also a workforce issue in an aging America.

Our economic growth is threatened primarily by too few ready-to-train-and-go job prospects.

The issues are immense. It's doable. One family at a time.

St. David's is in the middle of a $4.5 million capital campaign to furnish and equip its space and provide financial assistance for families who don't have the means to fully pay for its service.

Welcome to St. David's, which will be part of the solution.

And thanks to the good people of Westminster and business supporters willing to invest in a better future.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at