MIDDLETOWN, Ohio — Connie Neville was pregnant and looking for help when she first heard about Ohio’s Help Me Grow program.
The program provides support for pregnant women and caregivers with new babies as well as families who have young children with developmental delays and disabilities. Home visits are a crucial part of Help Me Grow’s services.
“I was 18 when I first got pregnant with Nova, so I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I need resources or something,’” Neville said. “It’s been such a good program.”
Alana Spears, Neville’s home visitor from Butler County Educational Service Center, has been a steady presence since before little Nova was born.
“She’s like a friend to us,” Neville said. “She’s opened up doors to a lot of resources for us, and Nova loves her to death.”
But those visits have changed dramatically because of the coronavirus pandemic. Now Spears does video chats over the phone instead of going in person to the Middletown house, where Neville cares for her grandfather, to visit with her, Nova and Neville's newborn daughter, Luna.
As tough as the change has been for families and staff alike, home visitors are determined to provide families with the emotional support and resources they need during these difficult times, said Emily White, the program supervisor for Butler County Educational Service Center’s Help Me Grow program.
“There’s so much happening in the world, and so they have a consistent person in their home visitor who can help them kind of dialog and talk through it and talk about what they’re seeing and those challenges and things that are just scary for them,” White said. “How are they going to get food? How are they going to find a job?”
Home visiting agencies throughout Ohio have been conducting virtual visits to maintain those connections during the pandemic, using video chats and phone calls and, when needed, dropping off resources and written materials at people's homes from a safe distance, said Samantha Bernard, a communications coordinator for Help Me Grow.
During a May 21 news conference, Gov. Mike DeWine stressed the importance of the state’s Help Me Grow program, saying the Ohio General Assembly’s budget “significantly increases funding” for the program.
“Our goal today remains to triple the number of families served by that program,” he said.
‘Informative, important years for children’
The Ohio Department of Health lists six agencies in Greater Cincinnati that provide home visitation. They are:
· Every Child Succeeds in Clermont County, and
· Warren County Educational Service Center in Warren County.
The program is critically important because 80% of a child’s brain development occurs before the age of 3, said Suzanne Prescott, the early childhood programs director for the Butler County Educational Service Center.
“They’re such informative, important years for children and at a time where it just makes sense for us to invest,” Prescott said, adding that studies have found that every dollar invested in early childhood programs saves $7 or $8 later in services and remediation that children don’t need.
Plus, she said, early home visitation programs can help give stressed parents the proper strategies for dealing with babies who aren’t sleeping at night or toddlers who misbehave. Many home visitors also have lactation training, she said, and also can teach infant massage.
“We always say it’s easier to help a mom decide how she’s going to parent than to change it later in life,” Prescott said. “That’s why it’s so important.”
The coronavirus pandemic and ongoing protests after the killing of George Floyd have left many parents in the program feeling more anxious, she said, making it more important than ever to maintain those connections.
“We feel like our moms are kind of getting isolated, many of them,” Prescott said. “So one of the things we’re going to be looking at is how do we start doing some groups online with our moms.”
Families have been more engaged with their home visitors than ever, White said.
“It seems to be their happy place,” she said. “They really look forward to their visit where they can say, ‘Oh, I tried that since last week, and it has gone really well.’”
Getting back to in-person visits
Still, she said, it hasn’t been easy for anyone, home visitors included.
“They miss the interaction. They miss seeing them,” White said. “They miss the hugs from the kids, all of that.”
Neville said she misses the in-person visits, too.
She and Spears did a video chat visit recently from Neville’s front porch so WCPO could observe.
Spears suggested an activity using three different pairs of shoes – one that belongs to Neville, another that belongs to Nova and a third that belongs to baby sister Luna.
The goal was for Nova to match up which shoes belonged to which person to help her learn about ownership in order to learn about sharing.
Nova was too busy running around the porch and checking on her baby sister to do much with the shoes.
But Neville got to catch up with Spears and tell her how everything had been going over the past week.
White dropped off a box of food as part of the visit, and Neville and Nova went through that, too, with Nova immediately grabbing a bag of cereal that she remembered from a prior delivery.
White and Prescott said they’re working to develop new ways to conduct in-person visits, possibly at educational centers around the community or in parks or other outdoor venues.
“I think we have to be super creative. This is a time where we’ve never been before,” Prescott said. “How do we get face-to-face interaction? Because we need it. The staff need it. The families need it. How can we do that safely?”
As much as home visitors worry about the parents and children that they aren’t seeing in person these days, the pandemic also has reminded them how resilient so many families can be.
Neville said she’s doing her best to care for Nova, who is nearly 2, and Luna, who is now 3 months old, while at the same time taking care of her grandfather. But she’s eager to get back to face-to-face visits with Spears.
“I definitely can’t wait to go back to the normal. Going to a phone, it’s not as personal. We still get to talk and things like that, but Nova likes to run off with the phone, so we don’t get to talk as much,” she said.
“It was nice to have that person to really talk in-depth about what was going on that week or what had happened and all the firsts with Nova,” Neville added. “To have that friend and adult interaction just meant the world to me and definitely helped with my mental health as well.”
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.