For Shauntel Marshall, the thought of becoming a mother seemed especially frightening—as it likely is for many first-time mothers. Believing that Marshall and her husband, Michael, could benefit from additional parenting support, her obstetrician referred her to Healthy Families of the Blue Ridge, a parenting program offered by Sentara RMH Community Health. Marshall became a Healthy Families client in February 2018.
Healthy Families is a free, voluntary program in which a home visitor helps new parents learn about child development, how to keep children healthy and how to prepare them to do well in school. Healthy Families tends to be most effective when these weekly home visits begin before the child is born. Parents participating in the program have the option to continue receiving visits through the child’s fifth year.
“I felt a lot of fear before my child was born, but Tracy Koblish, my Healthy Families home visitor, helped take that fear away,” says Marshall. “She helped me gain the confidence to become a good mother.”
How Healthy Families Can Help
Soon-to-be parents who may qualify for these services must be referred to the program, according to Brooke Garcia, Healthy Families team coordinator. “They’re usually very receptive to receiving the support we can provide,” she notes. “Once we receive their information, we contact them to do an assessment.”
The in-home assessment looks at a number of factors, including the backgrounds of the new parents—for example, how they were raised and what their parenting expectations are—to determine suitability for the program.
“People who have these and other issues—such as those who may be new to the area and simply don’t have any support—generally qualify for our home-visiting services,” Garcia says. “If the family is perhaps just a little unsure about parenthood, we can answer questions, provide information and follow up with them, but we may not necessarily enroll them in home visiting.”
Those who enroll in the program, like Marshall, are assigned a home visitor, who spends one hour a week in the home helping to ensure that the new parents have what they need to support their child’s health, growth and development. Significant attention is devoted to interactions between child and parents.
“We’re looking to achieve a strong parent-child connection,” says Garcia. “We want parents to learn how to interact with their child in a way that’s going to help the child develop and flourish. A great deal of our work is aimed at facilitating this connection.” Healthy Families also provides screenings for home safety, parental depression and child development, Garcia adds. If a delay in the child’s development is detected, early intervention can help put the child in a better position when he or she starts school.
In addition, the program can connect new parents with community resources to help with various needs, and even can assist with transportation, if needed. Healthy Families also sponsors a monthly support group, during which clients can share experiences and information and learn from one another.
“My home visitor has really helped me understand how to interact with my child and be a successful mother,” says Marshall. “I’ve also learned a lot from the Healthy Families support group, where I can talk to other new mothers and see how we’re all learning. It’s actually a lot of fun being part of the program.”
Healthy Families is an evidence-based program, meaning that it is based on findings from the latest parenting research. Studies show that, thanks to Healthy Families, more children in the program are receiving their immunizations and well-baby visits, and more expecting mothers are getting prenatal visits. In 2018, Garcia adds, Healthy Families served 160 families, conducted 1,746 home visits and served a client base speaking more than 10 languages. The program celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
A Helping Hand for Pregnant Teens and Teen Mothers
Another home-visitation program offered by Sentara RMH Community Health is Hand-in-Hand Resource Mothers, which is exclusively for pregnant or parenting teens. Goals include helping improve the prenatal and postnatal health of the mother and infant; showing clients how to deal with being a new mom; assisting with day-to-day challenges; and offering support, guidance and encouragement.
The program strives to enroll teen mothers in the first trimester of pregnancy, providing assistance until each child’s first birthday.
“Hand-in-Hand is a free program serving Harrisonburg, Staunton and Waynesboro, as well as the counties of Rockingham and Augusta,” says Ashley Cromer, team coordinator. “The only requirement for eligibility is that the teen is pregnant, or, if she has delivered, that the baby is one month old or less.”
Like Healthy Families, Hand-in-Hand receives client referrals from OB-GYN physician practices, but also from school counselors and AVA Care of Harrisonburg, a medical nonprofit organization that serves women facing unintended pregnancy. The pregnant teen is paired with a Resource Mother, who visits the teen at least twice a month in her home.
“Home visits are nice because they present more of a relaxed environment,” says Cromer. “In the home, especially after the baby is born, you see their daily surroundings and get a better picture of how the mother and child are doing.”
During the teen’s pregnancy, the Resource Mother educates the teen on how to have a healthy pregnancy; provides transportation to prenatal care, if needed; helps the teen apply for the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) supplemental food program; checks on availability of medical insurance; and instructs the teen on how to prepare for the baby’s arrival.
Sabrina Breeden was 18 when she was referred to Hand-in-Hand. She says the program was a godsend.
“As a first-time mother, I really didn’t know much about the resources available to me,” she says. “Hand-in-Hand answered all my questions, connected me with resources and helped me plan for how to raise my child.”
One of the most significant aims of Hand-in-Hand is making sure teen mothers stay in school.
“Hand-in-Hand places a high value on education, and we try to eliminate any barriers that would keep our clients from receiving an education,” says Cromer. “We make sure they’re signed up for the Homebound Program, in which tutors instruct new teen mothers at home to keep them from falling behind in their schooling. Sometimes circumstances require them to do night school, and we can manage that. But we definitely want these teen mothers to stay in school and, if possible, further their education beyond high school.”
This type of assistance is important, says Cromer, because when a new child arrives, it’s common for all attention to go the baby, leading the mother to neglect her own needs.
“We explain to teen mothers that there are going to be barriers in life,” she says. “If you want to go to college, what barriers do you see? If they say ‘money,’ we teach them that detours in life are OK—that they might have to work and save money to go to college. We simply try to help them process these barriers and see that they can still reach their goals.”
The program is working. Of the 65 clients Hand-in-Hand currently serves, one has just obtained an associate’s degree from Blue Ridge Community College (BRCC), four are enrolled at BRCC, six graduated from high school last June, and 21 are still attending school. Only two of the 65 have left school.
“Our ultimate goal is to prepare mothers to have the tools and skills they need to be effective parents,” says Cromer. “We want to help them meet their children’s needs and connect them to resources, so that when the program is over, they still know where to go for help, and they can still have fulfilling lives.”
Breeden is deeply grateful for the assistance she has received from Hand-in-Hand.
“My Resource Mother was truly supportive and helped me whenever I needed it,” she says. “The program is a great resource to have.”
• To learn more about Healthy Families, call 540-564-5661.
• To learn more about Hand-in-Hand, call 540-564-7151.