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Kent County: Who Says Babies Don’t Come With Instructions?
Young, first-time parents in Kent County get a hospital visit from a nurse who answers questions and bring them information and the gift of a “onesie” printed with the directions, “This Side Up.” The hospital visit will be followed by at least one home visit during which a nurse will do a physical examination and evaluation of the newborn.
The Home Visiting Project is a triage designed to open the door to services for the county’s youngest residents. It is just one of the ambitious initiatives created by the Kent County Early Childhood Children’s Commission in partnership with the Great Start Collaborative (GSC) in a determined effort to provide improved, streamlined services and opportunities for children from birth to five and their families.
“The home visiting nurse would be the first point of contact, a call for help in the universal program,” said Judy Freeman, GSC coordinator. Freeman said she realized the need for services for preschool aged children and infants while working as a principal in the Grand Rapids schools.
“I had become increasingly aware that kindergartners were coming to school less and less prepared even as there was more accountability to the state. It was a phenomenon that cut across all socio-economic lines. I knew it was important to get the whole community aware of these issues and working on solutions,” she said.
Kalamazoo County: Finding a Creative Solutions to Funding Challenges
One hundred infants in Kalamazoo County are getting a great start in life because of program that almost didn’t happen. Their Nurse-Family Partnership program provides a trained nurse to nurture, teach and model parenting for at-risk mothers, beginning with the pregnancy and continuing until the child is two.
“The NFP had been approved and funded,” explained Great Start Collaborative-Kalamazoo coordinator Jacque Eatmon, “then we lost the funding in a state budget crunch.”
To continue providing that great start for so many infants, creative funding solutions and parternships needed to be found. The Kalamazoo Collaborative supported a massive effort by faith-based partner, ISAAC (Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy and Action in the Community), to develop a new solution for Kalamazoo County. ISAAC is an interfaith organizing network of some sixteen congregations and strategic partners working together to build a more just community.
“We worked an untold numbers of hours gathering signatures, holding meetings, bringing expert speakers, testifying in Lansing and arranging a bus trip to visit a model program,” said Rochelle Habeck-Hunt, who represents ISAAC on the Collaborative board.
“One of the reasons I am involved with the collaborative is that I want to be sure mental health issues are addressed. It is easy to focus on immunizations and educational school readiness but by far the most important piece of preschool is mental health and that involves parents and children. said GSC-Kalamazoo chairperson Lou Ritter, a retired pediatrician. “Learning to manage your emotions, is more important than whether you get your shots or not.”
Ritter and others on the collaborative including Pediatrician Janice James are committed to ensuring that every child from birth to five has a medical home, which is the term for consistent medical care.
“While we are working for a medical home for every infant we hope the effort will reach beyond to the parents and other children in the family,” James said. “The first step is to increase awareness by working with agencies that have home visitors.”
Eastern Upper Peninsula: Engaging Parents, Building Communities
Resources are scarce in the Eastern Upper Peninsula and distances are great. Poverty rates for Chippewa, Mackinac and Luce Counties range from 32 to 36 percent, and Medicaid pays for up to two-thirds of area births.
The major employers are the state of Michigan, the five prisons in Chippewa County and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe’s casino. Employment opportunities are limited and, often, seasonal. The bleak financial picture has not kept early childhood advocates in the Great Start Collaborative-Eastern Upper Peninsula from spreading the word about the crucial early years of a child’s life or from working to create a seamless system of services.
“The main value added by the collaborative has been to engage parents. During the strategic planning and community needs assessment phases the parents were really involved,” explained Reenie Butler, director of the Chippewa-Luce-Mackinac Head Start and a collaborative board member. “They add a different perspective to the conversation and they got a chance to look at their own communities, to find ways to make a difference.”
Local parent Melanie Greenfield is making a difference in Pickford Township by planning a library. She has mobilized volunteers to raise enough money to hire a consultant to help with the proposed library. Greenfield’s involvement with the Collaborative and her participation in the Great Parents/Great Start playgroups inspired the idea.
“We have to support families as much as we can especially in rural areas, and we have to help get children ready for kindergarten,” said Greenfield. “There is no computer or art teacher in the Pickford schools. There is no public internet access in town and no library. We need to provide these things.”