The human brain develops most rapidly between birth and age 3. But many Vermont families with young children struggle to provide a healthy developmental environment for them due to poverty, disabilities or an inability to speak English. Enter Vermont's new four-year, $36.9 million race to the top early learning Challenge grant. The federal money will beef up existing family programs and create new opportunities for prenatal care, after-school programs, early-childhood nutrition and educator training. "The hope is, by the end of four years, we've really built and shored up this system so that everyone will feel the ramifications," says Alyson Richards, director of special projects at the governor's office. "The earlier we're able to build a strong foundation for kids, the better we're going to be as a state, the stronger we'll be as communities and families."