Peggy Smith, BSN, RN, IBCLC, (in photo to the left) looks forward to the Teddy Bear Picnic every year. It's when she and the staff of Holy Redeemer Health System's Healthy Families Program in Cape May, NJ, gather with participating families to celebrate their refined parenting skills and the positive beginnings provided for their children.
At this year's picnic, parents, children and some grandparents - more than 100 people in all - enjoyed face-painting, bubbles, a petting zoo, family photo sessions and a picnic-style feast.
"The picnic is just the culmination of it all," Smith said. "We have been working with these families, in many cases, for more than 3 years, from pregnancy until their children are 3 years of age. To see how far they've come is so rewarding."
In keeping with the teddy-bear theme, each child received a stuffed animal as a gift - a tradition that goes back to the program's first year, 1996, and its first picnic.
"My daughter had a very close friend whose mother died," Smith said. "She [the deceased mother] had a collection from Vermont Teddy Bear Co., and her daughter donated them to our program so each child could take one home. We've been doing the picnic every year since, and we always get such nice donations of stuffed animals for the kids."
Holy Redeemer Health System, which is headquartered in Montgomery County, PA, operates the largest home healthcare agency in New Jersey, providing home care in 11 New Jersey counties and hospice in eight, in addition to a community hospital and several residential facilities that provide care for older adults in Pennsylvania.
"Holy Redeemer sees Healthy Families as an extension of our mission to care, comfort, and heal," Smith said. "We've always had a special emphasis on working with the elderly, women and their children. Healthy Families is just another way to improve lives."
As manager and supervisor of the Healthy Families Program since its inception, Smith has helped hundreds of families over the years. While most of her work these days is done on the inside, managing referrals and coordinating resources, Smith does take time each week - at least 90 minutes with each of six case managers - to check up on the families enrolled in the program.
"This program is for first-time parents who are in need and eager to learn," she said. "We started 14 years ago with a small state grant, two support workers and me, and now we have six case managers each doing home visits with 20-25 families."
Families can participate in the Healthy Families Program until the child is 3 years old. Smith said it is ideal for a family to enroll 3 months before birth, so there is time for a case manager to help them enter childbirth classes and begin the education process.
Once the child is born, case managers work to empower parents as teachers. The home meetings include some pen-and-paper learning exercises, but a lot of time is spent working hands-on with the family to assist in promoting developmental activity. Caseworkers also provide safety advice and updates on crib and stroller recalls. Breastfeeding and nutrition are common topics, as well.
The home visits occur weekly for at least 6 months. After that, the case manager can assess the family situation and reduce the frequency to biweekly. In the final 6 months, as a family closes in on graduation, the visits can be monthly.
"The first year, it's all about development and [the baby] getting teeth in," Smith said. "In the second year, you are starting with temper tantrums and teaching a non-corporal way of discipline. Then you're into toilet training and getting the child out with other children. Those are our challenges."
Smith added the program includes a special-needs level where case managers can meet with a family twice a week.
Healthy Families chapters in each county across New Jersey receive technical assistance from Prevent Child Abuse New Jersey in cooperation with Prevent Child Abuse America in Chicago. Healthy Families is an international model program and each chapter is required to renew its accreditation every 4 years with Prevent Child Abuse America.
Seeing It Through
Smith describes Healthy Families as a "prevention program." Referrals come in through local OB clinics, hospitals and schools, but participation is strictly voluntary. Even so, Smith said, families generally stay in the program through graduation.
"We see some who drop out, but we feel we are doing a good job no matter how long we have them," she said. "We know who to connect them with in the community. We can help people get jobs. We can help them finish school or get GEDs. We can help them get clothing. We've helped them monetarily with gas cards. We really do everything we can to help them take care of themselves and their children."
Those who stick with it are guided through the first 3 years of parenting by passionate parent professionals. Parents learn patience, the importance of education and socialization, and they always have someone to call when they have questions. In order to graduate from the program, safety and stability are what matter most.
"We want to see they've had their well-baby and well-child care; that the parents are enriching the child's life; that the family is getting any necessary food or financial support; and parents are bonding with the child," Smith said. "For us, that's everything. That's our love. Just seeing mothers bond with babies is everything for me."
Rich Magda is a senior associate editor at ADVANCE.