CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Jennifer Garner, an award-winning actress and mother of three small children, does not have much extra time.
So, the fact that she chooses to serve as an advocate for Save the Children speaks volumes about what the organization means to her.
"I travel to D.C. a lot to do advocate work," said Garner, who for three years has held the position of artist ambassador with Save the Children's U.S. programs.
"It's also important to go to the sites to be a witness to what I see going on. Kids are hungry to learn."
Garner considers it important to funnel energy into something with high impact.
"Without a doubt, that is Save the Children," she said.
Garner spoke on Tuesday morning in a meeting room at Charleston Embassy Suites for the closing plenary session of the Southern Legislative Conference. The audience included lawmakers from 15 southern states.
Also speaking at the event was Mark Kennedy Shriver, who leads Save the Children's programs and advocacy efforts in 17 states and formerly served in the Maryland House of Delegates. He is a member of the famous Kennedy political family; his mother was the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of Robert F. and John F. Kennedy.
Garner said a support group is invaluable for a young mother to help her children get a good educational start in life.
She told the story of visiting Matthew, an 11-month-old with no books or toys in his home. She watched a Save the Children staff member work with him and his mother, who also was caring for his 2-week-old sister. The advocate took along books, toys and encouragement. Garner saw the mother gain confidence as her son babbled and played ball.
"I was so excited to witness it," Garner said.
Save the Children is an independent organization geared to improve the lives of children through early childhood education and literacy programs as well as physical activity and better nutrition. West Virginia began offering Save the Children programs in some areas in 2010.
Through early childhood education, trained advocates go into homes to teach parents the importance of reading to children and using toys to stimulate learning. They take along toys and books to children who often have no such items in their poverty-stricken environments. Through encouragement and moral support, parents gain the confidence and know-how to help their children learn.
"Ninety percent of brain growth occurs before the age of 5," said Garner, who added it is unfair for a child to have to play catch-up to succeed.
Extending a helping hand and a bit of knowledge to a mother who feels isolated and frightened can make all the difference, she said.