Healthy Families, a free countywide program providing support, education and encouragement to first-time parents, is open in its new quarters at Clatsop County Health and Human Services.
The Healthy Families program was created in Hawaii in the 1980s to promote healthy childhood growth and development and strengthen families. The program has since spread through much of the United States and began in Clatsop County in 1994 as a pilot project with Tillamook County. In 1999, Columbia Memorial Hospital took over fiscal and administrative oversight. Funding cuts for the program prompted the hospital to discontinue its contract in March. The Clatsop County Board of Commissioners stepped up to take the program under the county's wing.
"Healthy Families is an important service for many new parents in our community," County Administrator Scott Derickson said. "Our analysis shows we should be able to continue this valuable program without additional cost to the county."
Family support workers Tara Mestrich and Patricia Soto are available to assist families through the challenges of raising a firstborn. They can be reached at the health department, 820 Exchange St., Astoria, or call 325-8500 on weekdays.
"We're so grateful this program is continuing and families will still have this valuable service available to them," said Clatsop County Nursing Supervisor Lynn Cook, who supervises the program under the county's maternal and child health services. "And we want to say thank you to Columbia Memorial for capably and generously managing this countywide program for the last five years."
"We are very excited to add this aspect of home visiting to our services. It's a good fit and will be a good program for our families," Cook added. Many of the same families can tap into the county's WIC (Women, Infant and Child) nutrition, family planning, immunization and maternal and child health services.
Anyone who has a first baby in Columbia Memorial or Providence Seaside hospital is provided information about the Healthy Families programs.
Help for all
Participation in the program is voluntary and can involve single parents, couples, grandparents and other relatives. Expectant or new parents and other agencies may also contact the program. A support worker calls on all families that indicate an interest.
"During the phone call, we try to find out what needs, if any, the family may have and how we might help them get connected to needed services," Mestrich said.
Depending on a family's need, a family support worker might make regular home visits to help with infant health, safety and development, parenting and other issues such as finding safe housing and learning how to budget on a limited income.
"It doesn't matter who you are, coming home with a brand new baby is exciting and challenging. It's nice to have someone you can talk to," Mestrich said.
She and Soto know well the adage that babies don't come with instructions. They remember their own trepidation that came with the joys of first-time motherhood:
Why is my baby crying? Is my baby spoiled? How do I function without sleep? Is it OK to give my baby a bath? How? Why does my baby sleep so much? Do I give my baby solid foods? My baby won't breast-feed, what do I do?
The women help families find solutions to these and other questions that will work for them. A support worker may sit down with a new mom and brainstorm ideas for how to comfort a crying baby or encourage a baby to nap and write out a list. The next week, the support worker will check with the mom to see what worked and what else the mom might need or want for her child. Sometimes issues are more serious, such as an illness.
Healthy Families emphasizes positive parenting techniques over corporal punishment and helps families set their own goals to be healthy and self-sustaining, such as getting a job and securing housing.
Family support workers receive intensive and ongoing professional training in helping families deal effectively with challenges. The training includes parenting, infant development, nutrition, safety and nurturing. It takes a special person to be a support worker who can impart knowledge and skills without judging, Cook said.
Mestrich has been with Healthy Families for the past three years and has a background in early childhood education. She worked with special needs children in the school system and taught preschool. She is a native of Astoria.
Soto is new to the program, but new not to helping local families. She is fluent in both Spanish and English, has been serving as an interpreter for the health department for the past year, after volunteering because she saw a need. She taught kindergarten for four years in Lima, Peru, and came to Astoria two years ago. She tutors Spanish to English speakers at Clatsop Community College.
"Parents are a baby's first and most important teacher. Every parent wants to do the right things for their baby," Cook said. "Healthy Families is here to help them build on their strengths and enhance their skills as parents."