“We want parents to become their child’s first and best teacher.”
Kelly Towne steers her bright green Mazda into an apartment complex parking lot in the middle of Council Bluffs. Meanwhile, a 3-year-old boy watches a cartoon inside. Young Javier is going to be a big brother soon as his mother is 7 ½ months pregnant. As Towne makes her way up the stairs and into the apartment, she’s greeted by Maria del Carmen Rendon and the two women exchange pleasantries in Spanish. Towne is here on behalf of FAMILY Inc. for a home visit. She’s here to help.
The goal of FAMILY Inc. is to provide underserved families with the resources they need for their children to be healthy, safe and ready for school. With about 2,000 days between birth and Kindergarten, FAMILY Inc. realizes the power of parents in early child development. They also realize the obstacles.
For low-income families, the challenges are endless. Room and board takes priority over board books. Real life transportation problems mean a lack of funds for toy cars and trucks. Language dividers make it hard to communicate with health care providers.
“The main idea of the “Parents as Teachers” program is not to wait until a child begins school to intervene,” said Sarena Dacus, Executive Director of FAMILY Inc., which houses offices in both Council Bluffs and Avoca.
“We want a parent to become a child’s first and best teacher.”
“There’s no manual for being a mom or dad.”
Economists have found well-designed and well-implemented home visit programs can return up to $5.70 per taxpayer dollar invested by reducing societal costs associated with poor health and academic failure. Researchers have found direct links from early reading and reading proficiency in the third grade to higher graduation rates and an increase in contributing members to society later on.
The evidenced-based “Parents as Teachers” program focuses on “primary prevention.” Simply put, breaking the cycle of poverty before it hits the reset button.
For Carmen, that means weekly visits in which Kelly introduces her to early literacy skills, presents age-appropriate developmental activities, empowers her with parenting information and resources, and of course, hands out new books. For others, it may mean showing a new mother how to latch her newborn on to breastfeed. It can also be teaching a big, burly dad the words to “The Wheels on the Bus.” Sometimes it’s demonstrating how to pack a healthy lunch for a school age child. Other times it’s just offering to listen.
“There’s no manual for being a mom or dad. Being a parent is overwhelming no matter how many times you’ve done it,” said Towne.
“I wish every family could have a Kelly.”
It’s easy to see how the books and activities make an impact on families, but there’s another component to the program that’s not as tangible: empowerment.
“The empowerment piece is one of the biggest components to our program and key to helping us raise families up,” Dacus said.
For some young, single mothers and new parents in general, a lack of confidence can prohibit them from asking questions at the doctor’s office or speaking out as their child’s advocate. When positive reinforcement is non-existent, it only contributes to feelings of uncertainty and doubt.
Kelly can remember complimenting a mother only to have her respond that it was the first time she’d ever been told she was doing a good job.
“We want to encourage our families and tell them, ‘You can do it’, like a train going up the track,” said Jean Bohnker, Supervisor of Home Visitation for FAMILY Inc. “That’s what we and Kelly do best. I wish every family could have a Kelly.”
Carmen flips through the latest issue of Ser Padres (Parents) magazine as Javier points to objects for a special book Kelly constructs with all her clients.
Javier points to a picture of a baby and that spurs Kelly to ask how Carmen’s prenatal appointments are going. (Bueno.) Then he selects a photo of a car seat, which leads Kelly to inquire if Carmen has one. (Si.) Javier then points to a picture and shouts out the word “Robot!” before announcing that he has to use the bathroom. Carmen and Kelly chuckle as they swap stories about their children.
In less than one hour, they’ve practiced colors and shapes, exchanged prenatal information and handouts, talked about ESL classes at Iowa Western Community College and gone over tips for getting siblings involved in preparation for a new baby.
None of it would be possible without the funding granted by the Iowa West Foundation, according to Dacus.
“Without the support of the Iowa West Foundation, we wouldn’t exist,” she said.
Kelly wouldn’t pull her car into the parking lot. Carmen wouldn’t page through Ser Padres magazine with her son. Javier would have fewer books to read. The door would stay closed. Carmen might remain isolated. And the poverty cycle would have a greater chance to continue.
“But because of our work and Iowa West’s support, we will help assure that children and families in southwest Iowa have the resources they need to succeed, Dacus said.