When a young student began drawing pictures using only black crayons, it caught the attention of veteran early childhood educator Alyia Dixon.

“Kids always gravitate to the brighter colors,” Alyia says. “But when she was scribbling, she scribbled her pictures all in black… Sometimes all black, all the way to the edge of the pages.”

Alyia, who has been teaching at Educare Chicago, a program of Start Early, for 23 years, shared her observations and concerns with the school’s family support specialists, and together, they arranged a visit to the student’s home. These sorts of discussions are critical for providing families with a multi-perspective and multi-expertise support system. This holistic approach is a core component of high-quality early childhood programs. It provides valuable support for students and can help connect their families to important resources.

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“We did a home visit and found out that her lights were out… That’s why she was drawing all in black,” Alyia explains. “After we realized that, we talked about things you could do in the dark, you know, to try to lessen the negativity behind having the lights out.”

The Educare Chicago team realized during the home visit that the family was living with relatives, and that they would be best suited for success if they had their own apartment.

The school’s family support specialists worked with the student’s mother to help her obtain her own housing and connected her with utility payment assistance programs.

At Start Early, we believe that parents are a child’s first educators, which is why we prioritize family engagement in our early learning programs. Family engagement in early education is particularly important for children and families in communities that are under-resourced, in that it helps create consistency between the home and school environments. The positive outcomes of engaged parents are powerful: increased support for children’s learning at home, empowered parents and improved family well-being.

When Alyia reconnected with the family several years later, she discovered that they were still successfully living on their own.

“We were talking and she brought up how embarrassed she had been during that home visit,” Alyia says. “But, she said, ‘We only had candles and you acted like it was nothing. That took away the sting of it… I knew then that it was going to be all right.’”

Teacher and student posting for photo in school library

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For 40 years, Start Early has provided doula, home visiting and Head Start programs while advocating for policies and adequate funding to make high-quality early education programs, like Educare Chicago, available in communities across the country. Supporting our vital work ensures that teachers like Alyia have the resources needed to support young children and their families in powerful and life-changing ways.

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The supports available through our high-quality early childhood programs don’t just provide for the needs of students while they’re in the classroom; they also address challenges at home that could keep a student from thriving in pre-kindergarten and beyond.

“A lot of the circumstances we witness go way above and beyond the norms for what a teacher is supposed to encounter,” Alyia says.

That’s why high-quality early childhood programs often rely on experts that can help families connect with mental health resources, find safe housing and obtain food assistance. At Educare Chicago, family support specialists and mental health consultants work diligently with parents to ensure the needs of their entire family are being met.

Additionally, our programs connect parents of young children with their peers, creating supportive communities that benefit both adults and their kids.

“Our parents build relationships with other adults that they maintain outside of Educare Chicago. We’ve had a few parents that built relationships where they would take their kids on outings with each other,” Alyia says. “They’re building relationships and making connections that will outlast their child’s time in our program.”

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re commemorating women’s vital impact and accomplishments on society.

Our Start Early staff members: Keneischia Jones, health coordinator, Early Head Start Network; Rio Romero-Jurado, policy manager, National Policy and Kayla Goldfarb, policy specialist, Illinois Policy shared how their womanhood has influenced their career journey, the crucial importance of pay equity in early childhood and the need for inclusion and continued progress for all women.

How has being a woman influenced your identity?

Keneischia Jones: Being a woman of color is my daily makeup. I get to wake up and change my hair and wear my afro today because that’s what I’m feeling. I’ve become the young Black woman that I wanted to be when I was younger and I wasn’t able to present like this. Now as a woman I have my bearings and I can show the world who I am at all times.

Rio Romero-Jurado: My identity in being a woman and a woman of color in particular has really shaped my values, social conscience and the kind of person I want to be and what I want to contribute to the world. I came to social work, policy and advocacy because I was naturally drawn to eliminating inequities in our society and empowering other women through social change and action.

That’s part of why I love what I do. Even in elementary school I really loved social studies. I recognized pretty early on that there was an underrepresentation, we all know, of women and people of color at our highest levels of government. I think that’s really further motivated me to embrace my identity as a woman and to be part of an organization to help ensure that women and the issues that matter to them and their families are prioritized in our society and in policy.

Kayla Goldfarb: There are so many things that have been shared that really resonated with me and are really energizing. Being a woman has influenced my identity in that I don’t feel limited in any way. But I also recognize how much of a privilege that is when you look at women globally and locally because that is not always the case. I’ve begun to understand the breadth of how people experience being a woman from a race, class, location and lived experience perspective. It’s been mind opening.

Are there any misconceptions about women that you want to address?

Keneischia Jones: We are not too emotional to make important decisions. We are not led with emotions we have the capacity to be emotionally aware and emotionally intelligent and logical at the same time. I also want to stress as a Black woman that we are not angry. We can clearly speak our problems but we are not a threat and we’re not angry all the time. We’re just passionate and loving people.

Rio Romero-Jurado: There is a balance between recognizing that there have been strides made in gender equality and at the same time acknowledging the continued work that is needed to achieve true equitable progress. We now have a woman of color as our Vice President which is fantastic. But we’re still so behind in many ways and that is a misconception of thinking that we’ve reached a certain milestone, which we have, but we’ve got to keep making more progress. There’s so much more to be done.

Kayla Goldfarb: I really agree with Rio I think there’s certainly a danger in complacency and being like yeah we won. There’s so many domains in which women don’t have equal footing and I think it’s important to take time during Women’s History Month to look at spaces where women’s accomplishments have been relegated to the back and not acknowledged or fully covered up and taken as someone else’s.

I can think of science domains where women’s discoveries were rebranded as men’s. Hedy Lamarr for example was a movie star in the 1930s and 40s but was also the inventor of frequency hopping and her inventions were taken and the credit was given to men. I think in very present ways that still happens a lot and translates to things like pay and career advancement and the fact that women don’t get the automatic recognition that maybe men do.

In terms of misconceptions, I think one is that caring about women’s rights is in any way exclusionary to people who weren’t born women but identify as women. Trans exclusionary embodiments of feminism are not good for women. The misconception that there is in any way a threat to women’s progress by upholding and defending the rights of those who identify as women but who might not have been born identifying that way. So there’s clearly a long way to go.

But it’s nice to take time during Women’s History Month to think about how these things show up historically and in our day-to-day lives.

Be sure to follow our blog to stay up-to-date on the latest announcements and learn about our ongoing diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) work.

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Each year, we celebrate Black History Month to recognize the contributions and influence of African Americans to the history, culture and achievements of the United States.

Our Start Early staff members: Erice Evans, senior financial analyst; Stuart Lassiter, early childhood practice consultant; Kristie Norwood, education manager for the Early Head Start and Head Start Network of Illinois shared how their heritage has shaped their identity and impacted their work, how they maintain their culture and why it’s important to recognize Black History Month.

How do you feel that your African American heritage has influenced your identity and what do you appreciate most about being Black?

Kristie Norwood: What I appreciate most about being Black is being Black. It is a heritage and legacy of strength and strong traditions of faith and family. I love that feeling of coming into a room and even if there’s only one other Black person there is an immediate connection of knowing each other.

Erice Evans: We come from a very rich background and history that I appreciate as I’m older now that I didn’t really know to appreciate growing up. I love the melanin and the different colors, characteristics, traits and everything that makes us a beautiful people from the outside to the inside. My [African American] heritage has made me who I am today.

Stuart Lassiter: Being Black is my identity and it’s how I’m recognized by others and also how I recognize myself. My family has always stressed what it means to be a Black male. The idea that I heard from my great grandfather, grandfather and uncles of being the best you can be because you have to work from a place of excellence to be seen as being good.

One thing I truly appreciate is our strength, perseverance and striving to always overcome. It’s amazing that we’ve come so far and still have so far to go.

Erice Evans: I love that you mention strength because it is part of our heritage. We were taught the skills to overcome anything. If you get knocked down get back up and keep fighting. We don’t stay down.

Are there any misconceptions about Black culture that you want to dispel?

Erice Evans: For many years it seems that we as Black people have always been portrayed in a negative view. It’s never about the accomplishments that we have made or all the good that we have done, our creativity, the things we do in and for our community.

When you see us on the news it’s always something negative and we became a people to be feared and wrongly so. We’re not all the same although we’re viewed that way. In every person there is good, bad and also great and we deserve to be recognized for that.

Stuart Lassiter: One of the misconceptions is that I’m a Black male so I must be dangerous. The narrative in the media is that Black people are dangerous. If you look at the 10 p.m. news there is always a story about a shooting or a drug raid. I’m not diminishing it those things do happen.

But there is an overwhelming percentage of people in Black communities who are law abiding, go to work and want to provide for their children. But that is not the narrative being shared.

Kristie Norwood: I think people have misconceptions about Black people and Black culture for various reasons. I don’t feel like I’m here to discount anybody’s misconceptions. I think there is enough evidence out there to give people a complete picture of the Black experience in this world, not just in this country.

If there is one thing I want to stress is that Black people are not a monolith we are not all the same. We have joys, triumphs and sorrows like any other people and we each have different opinions. I’m sad that as Black people we don’t always get the luxury in being taken as individuals.

Why is music so foundational to Black culture?

Kristie Norwood: Music is so important because it is a communication vehicle that goes past your ears and right into your soul. It provides strength, encouragement, celebration and joy. During the Civil Rights movement they sang songs to keep each other encouraged, remind themselves of what the goal was and keep fear down. When I think about some of the times in my life music has been the vehicle that really helped me stay in it long enough to get from point A to Point B.

Erice Evans: Music is a part of who we are. Music is how we coped and it’s the soundtrack of our lives. Church is a big thing in our culture and you would hear your grandparents or parents sing old gospel hymns around the house to lift them up during times of challenge or sorrow.

We are a very passionate people and music is how we express ourselves. Music is how we brought who we are to life and to the world.

Stuart Lassiter: Music is hope and joy. Go back historically and it was communication and freedom. Slaves sang songs in code to communicate where you should go, when you should leave and when you should stop if danger was around. Music was survival and freedom.

The contributions to all forms of music. The richness and experience of life that’s being shared when Black people share their music. Music spans the gambit of life from birth and being children to teenage and adult years. Blues, jazz, country, pop, hip hop and gospel. Black people have given such a worthy contribution to the world of music.

This year’s Black History Month theme is health and wellness. Why is it important for African Americans to prioritize health and wellness?

Erice Evans: The pandemic highlighted what we already knew. We were most affected when the pandemic hit because we don’t all have access to quality health care and that’s been across generations. We suffered a lot throughout COVID-19, we’ve been suffering, but the pandemic brought it to light so the world knows it too. It couldn’t be hidden anymore.

It’s time to address those deficiencies so that we can get the quality healthcare, education and opportunities – the jobs, pay and benefits – we deserve to help our communities.

We have to care about our physical, mental and emotional health and teach our children that from birth to age five to teenagers to adulthood. We didn’t have access to mental health care and within our community it was taboo to say I need a therapist. We’re used to being strong, but that strength doesn’t mean we have to carry the whole burden.

Stuart Lassiter: The mortality rates of Black people are among the highest in so many health categories: cancer, diabetes and infant mortality.

There are barriers to access to healthy food, healthcare and quality education so you can attain greater opportunities through your job to care and mental health. It’s all packaged together. If there’s something that’s deficient in your health and wellbeing it impacts other aspects of your health.

Erice Evans: We should be able to have it all. There are other communities that have it all and we shouldn’t have to pay astronomically to get it. Some communities if you want your child to have a good education you have to pay for it. That shouldn’t be the case.

Start Early is committed to quality education for children ages zero to five. Quality education should be available for all children. Like Stuart said if you’re deficient in one thing you’re deficient in it all and I think that’s one thing we have to address in our culture.

Kristie Norwood: We have to make our health and wellness a priority because if we don’t historically it’s been proven that nobody else will.

We can’t build a sick legacy. Our men and women are dying because of heart disease, cancers related to diet and stress and mental health issues leaving families behind. We need to be well so we can experience joy, exuberance, abundance and brilliance so we can keep giving that to our children.

So my hope is that health and wellness and particularly mental health becomes a legacy for us in the same way that our other traditions of church, food and celebrations.

Be sure to follow our blog to stay up-to-date on the latest announcements and learn about our ongoing diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) work.

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Nurturing others comes naturally for Victoria Barajas, who has found her true calling as a home visitor. After spending 10 years working at an early learning school, she was drawn to home visiting’s ability to create supports for the whole family that build a strong foundation for years to come.

The “Yes Moment”

Home visitors like Victoria help parents engage in their children’s education and get a better understanding of developmental milestones. “A lot of parents are not aware that what they bring to the table impacts their child’s development,” she shares. “As parents get more involved, they’ll tell me things like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know my child could do this. I thought they were too small,’ and it makes them more eager to be involved.”

This builds a strong foundation for future learning. “Having the parent involved shows the child that their parent took the time to be with them and interact with them, so they feel confident enough to detach and interact with other adults,” she explains. When the child gets older, they’re more receptive to what they’re learning, are better able to problem solve and have increased communication skills.

For Victoria, the “yes moment” comes when parents begin to follow their child’s curiosity and development. “We can’t choose their interests for them — if we don’t follow their curiosity, they won’t want to learn anything else,” she says. “I know it clicks when parents say, ‘Wait, I know we planned for this because that’s what they were interested in last week but they’re not interested in that anymore. Can we do this instead?’”

Meeting Families Where They’re At

As a Spanish-speaking Latina, Victoria knows being part of a diverse home visiting workforce is essential to fostering intimate relationships with her families.

“You need to be empathetic and meet parents and families where they are at. It’s beneficial that I can connect with families in their language. It’s where they feel more confident in speaking and interacting with me because that is how they’re communicating with their child,” Victoria explains.

It is important to consider each family’s home culture and how they interact with their child. “Even among Latinos, Mexicans speak different dialects and Ecuadorians have different vocabulary so you can’t go into the home assuming everyone speaks the same type of Spanish.”

By building relationships with every adult in the home, including grandparents, Victoria builds a foundation of professionalism, empathy and cultural sensitivity. “When you do that, the adults give you so much more to work with and are open to receiving whatever you bring to their home,” she shares.

Supporting the Whole Family

In addition to helping parents build strong relationships with their children, home visitors connect families to the resources and supports in the community they need to thrive. Particularly during times of high stress, a parent may feel unable to give their full self to supporting their child. That’s why home visiting provides comprehensive supports to families. It’s only when a parent feels 100% that they can be fully present.

“I tell families that I’m here to work with the family as a whole, not just the child,” she shares. “If parents are focused on what they’re going through financially or dealing with depression, I know only supporting children’s development isn’t going to help. Once we address families’ basic needs and supports, we start to see an increase in parent interaction.”

During the pandemic, Victoria helped her families access basic needs like diapers, baby wipes, formula, cleaning supplies and gift cards to purchase additional items. “All my families said they really appreciated it, especially those who lost their jobs. It kept them afloat,” she recalls.

One of the biggest challenges during COVID was helping families with technology needs. Victoria helped her families navigate a variety of issues, from lacking access to a laptop or tablet to not having enough data to download the new apps required for virtual meetings. When some of her parents struggled to download mobile apps because the instructions were in English, she shared screenshots and instructions in Spanish.

As the pandemic ebbs and Victoria is able to resume in-person visits, she continues to prioritize each family’s perspective and comfort zone. “There are some families that are very relaxed and open to visitors and others that are very cautious as to their interaction with the rest of the world. I work with each individual family and meet them where they are.”

The Impact of Her Work

Now nearly 20 years into the work, Victoria remains passionate about being able to make a difference in children’s lives and help their parents understand why it’s important for them to be a part of their children’s development. Her reward is the pictures and text messages she receives from parents sharing a video of a first step, a photo from a birthday party, or an update from school.

“I got into this work for personal reasons, but working with families so closely and seeing the impact of my work is incredibly meaningful.”

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Hispanic Heritage Month collage

Each year, we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 to recognize the contributions and influence of Hispanic Americans to the history, culture and achievements of the United States.

Our staff members shared how their heritage has shaped their identity and impacted their work, how they maintain their culture and why it’s important to recognize Hispanic Heritage Month.

Can you introduce yourself and share what you do here at Start Early and how your Hispanic heritage influenced your identity?

Nilda Barrett: I’m a financial manager supporting 15 divisions and have been at Start Early for almost two years. I’m Puerto Rican, born and raised in Chicago and I’m the second youngest of seven children. My parents came to the States when they were very young and met here in Chicago. They taught me and my siblings the importance of education and working hard to get the things you need. We lived in mainly Hispanic neighborhoods, so I grew up around Cubans, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans and was exposed to a little bit of everything and got to see how hard people worked. The person I am today, my ambition, everything is inspired by my upbringing and due to my culture.

Yáyá Cardenas Torres: I’m a training institute coordinator for the Professional Learning Network and I’ve been with Start Early for 14 years. I’m Mexican American born and raised in Indiana and I’m a proud Hoosier. My mother was born and raised in Texas and my father was born and raised in Michoacán, Mexico. I am the only girl out of five brothers.

With my mother being Tex-Mex and my dad being Mexican, I had two cultures: One uses cheddar and one uses Chihuahua, but together they are perfect on a burrito. My culture has made me who I am. My upbringing, my loyalty, my faith, my passion… it is who I am and I apply it to my professional and personal life.

Alexis Aguilú Hernandez: I’m the assistant director of operations for the Educare Learning Network and have been at Start Early for 14 years as well. I’m one of two and was born and raised in Puerto Rico. I left the island at the age of 20 to attend Marquette University in Wisconsin and stayed here. I have a ton of family in the Midwest.

Puerto Rican is who I am. I live my life as a Puerto Rican and I love my Puerto Rican heritage. I get chills every time that I go home. On the flight home, I always plan to sit by the window so I can see the whole island as we descend. It’s who I am, it’s family and how I grew up. Seeing the flag, it’s who I am and I like to share that with others who may not understand what being Puerto Rican and Latinx is.

How has your Hispanic heritage impacted your daily work to advance our mission and better serve children and families? 

Alexis Aguilú Hernandez: I always say that my Hispanic background is not only what identifies me, but what defines me. Being a Hispanic immigrant allows me to better understand the challenges that many of our Hispanic children and families go through and focuses my commitment to do everything I can to help them close that opportunity gap once and for all.

I have been able to use Spanish several times in my role at Start Early. We started sending out text messages to families and I would translate them into Spanish. Most recently, at the Educare Learning Network, I helped review our network requirements and Child Tax Credit communications in Spanish. Knowing languages opens your mind to the world.

Yáyá Cardenas Torres: Being Mexican American and bilingual provides me with cultural sensitivity and enables me to better serve our Spanish-speaking clients. My parents also taught me to have a solid work ethic, ambition and commitment which I use in my daily work.

What do you appreciate most about your Hispanic culture? 

This month really helps people recognize the complexities, histories and richness of the different Hispanic cultures. It’s very important to celebrate Hispanic heritage.

Nilda Barrett
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How do you preserve your Hispanic culture?

Yáyá Cardenas Torres: I try to preserve our culture with food. Any gathering we host, I’ll cook Mexican dishes. My dad and I both have gardens and I love to make homemade salsa using everything from jalapeños to habaneros and Anaheim chili peppers and share it with everyone. I feel very close to my mom when I make salsa because I remember growing up she would make it and give it away to our neighbors. I also share my culture with my son and foster kids: we celebrate Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and Día de los Niños (Day of the Children). I try to incorporate it everywhere I can.

Nilda Barrett: Similar to Yáyá, we are very family oriented. We took a trip to Puerto Rico in 2018 and are looking to go again next year. Everything from la música — salsa, merengue, reggaeton, bachata — to la comida. My mom will come over and make pastelitos (a Puerto Rican pastry filled with guava and cheese) and my four kids love them. I also instill in my kids the importance of learning Spanish because being bilingual is such an asset. 

How would you describe the diversity within your family?

Are there any misconceptions about Hispanic culture that you want to dispel?

Why is it important to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month and recognize the impact Hispanic people have had within the U.S.?

Nilda Barrett: Hispanic culture has contributed so much to the development of the United States over the years and it just keeps growing. This month really helps people recognize the complexities, histories and richness of the different Hispanic cultures. It’s very important to celebrate Hispanic heritage.

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Santa Clara Open Space Authority outdoor class photoTeri Rogoway’s love of nature started early, with her own mom. “My mom taught me from a really young age that nature was a gift and that we could be better people as a result of interacting with nature,” she shares. “I’ve always had a positive experience in nature and I wanted to give those kinds of experiences to other people.”

As the educational programs coordinator for the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority, Teri helps children engage with nature from an early age. “We do stroller walks with parents and infants and toddlers, where we let the kids play outside and make things out of twigs, rocks and leaves. I never tell them what to make, I just let them create,” she notes, which helps build creativity skills that follow them into their later years.

Engaging parents is key to increasing young children’s exposure to and appreciation of nature. “You want parents to feel comfortable being out in nature because children watch how their parent responds. If the parents are afraid, then a child might pick up on that fear and carry it with them through life,” she explains.

Nature’s Impact on Early Childhood Development

Children participating in nature walk withSanta Clara Open Space AuthorityThroughout her career, Teri has seen the benefits of engaging children early in nature. “Parents who go hiking with their child in a baby backpack, let them play in parks, climb trees, rescue worms and jump in puddles are building up their child’s immunity and increasing their motor skills,” she shares. “Those kids, who have been encouraged to play in and explore nature, are less fearful, more creative and know how to calmly interact with other people.”

In addition to nature’s impact on children’s cognitive development, Teri also sees mental and emotional health benefits for parents. “I want parents to feel the healing, peaceful aspects of nature that they can get away even if it’s just to a little neighborhood park or a vacant lot with wildflowers.”

“Nature is big enough to take anything that we have to give any stress or worry. Kids will respond to their parents being less stressed and spending time in nature also creates beautiful family memories that they can look back on.”

Virtual Programming during the Pandemic

During the pandemic, Teri and her team pivoted to provide online programs via Facebook Live and Zoom to continue to share the benefit of engaging in nature. “Our team gave live virtual trail tours showing people different plants and animals while they answered questions like, ‘Susie from Oakland would like to know what that green flower is called to the left.’”

She saw the benefits for her staff who also missed the in-person interaction with visitors and one another, “We were so grateful to be able to do that and help others and ourselves fight that sense of isolation, it felt like we were fulfilling our purpose.” The park is now open for in-person visits with COVID-19 precautions in place (e.g., one-way trails with social distancing) and is seeing an increase in visitors.

As we celebrate National Arbor Day and parks continue to open, Teri encourages us all to head outdoors: “Nature is where we belong and the place we go to for healing, peace and restoration. Give yourself permission to enjoy time outside for yourself; we work so hard but remember Mother Nature is there to give back to you.”

“As a child care provider, I always imagined I’d do something with new parents,” recalls Tina Greer, a doula for the Child Abuse Council’s Healthy Families program in the Quad Cities, one of the 30 home visiting programs in Start Early’s Home Visiting & Doula Network.

Tina was propelled to become a doula after experiencing the unimaginable loss of her own son at just 17-days old. She knew becoming a doula combine her passion for social work and new families. She also knew that having experienced loss equipped her with the empathy and resources to help families in similar situations. Now, nearly four years later, Tina is close to securing her Stillbirthday Bereavement Certification so that she can offer parents experiencing loss this unique support.

“You have to turn that loss into something positive otherwise it’s unbearable to live with,” she reflects.

Making Impact for Those Most in Need

As a doula, Tina helps each birthing person achieve their healthiest pregnancy, labor and birth possible by providing educational, emotional and physical support at every stage of the journey.

Tina believes her own experiences — as a first-time mother relying on WIC and Medicaid, and as the daughter of a teenage mother who was in the situation a lot of her clients are in now — help her relate to her clients on a deeper level.

“It’s really important that people in underserved communities get the access they deserve to professional pregnancy, labor, and postpartum support,” Tina shares. “We help all families realize they can bond with their baby in the womb, that they have a voice when they go the hospital and options during labor and birth.”

One of her favorite parts of her work is teaching parents ways to bond with their babies through modeling. “I help show how easy it is to talk with a developing baby,” she explains. “Some parents aren’t comfortable reading to a baby in utero but seeing me put myself into an awkward situation and model this can make them more open to trying it themselves.”

For Tina, watching parents grow into their roles is the ultimate reward. “It’s incredible to watch the transformation into parenthood,” she shares. “I get excited and overjoyed watching the families I work with utilize tools I helped equip them with during pregnancy.”

A Champion for Mental Health Care

Tina’s personal relationship with each pregnant person helps her ensure they receive the necessary support throughout their prenatal journey, including mental health supports.

Tina recalls one young mother, who disclosed that she was struggling with depression as a result of sexual abuse as they walked through her birth plan. When Tina asked if the mother had talked to her provider about it, the mother responded that she hadn’t and was too afraid to bring it up.

“She was too afraid that if they found out she was depressed and had all of this past trauma, they would take her baby away,” Tina recalls.

Tina secured the young mom’s consent to attend her next prenatal appointment with the mother and gently raise the issue of mental health and postpartum depression with the OB-GYN, eventually leading to a referral for therapy and medication.

“For someone in the medical field to tell her, ‘You have the potential to be a great mom with depression,’ that was all she needed. She became more confident as a parent.”

Tina also ensured that the young mother was able to establish safe boundaries with her nurses and doctor during labor. “When we did her birth plan, she wrote at the top in red ‘I am a survivor of sexual trauma. Do not put your hands on me without my consent.’ And as a result, everyone was very respectful of her space and boundaries,” she remembers.

Virtual Support and Moving Beyond the Pandemic

Given the hands-on nature of her work, the transition to virtual support has been “a wild ride” for Tina. “It’s been very challenging to not get to see my clients face-to-face if they don’t have the ability to do Zoom or Facetime,” she shares.

To follow state guidelines during the pandemic, Tina had to stay out of the hospital room with her laboring clients, so she used a sanitized traveling tablet to virtually interact instead. “I haven’t been to a birth since March 2020 and that has been heartbreaking to not be in the room with my clients,” she says.

One surprise benefit of the virtual outreach is the ability to engage on a more personal level. “I have my kids running around in the background when I’m on Zoom and it has taken a layer of professionalism away,” she admits. “But it’s also allowed my clients to connect to me because they see I’m real and struggling like they are.”

As the pandemic subsides, Tina is eager to get back into the labor and delivery room with her clients because, as she says, “Research has shown that having continuous labor support creates better birth outcomes.” She knows the benefits of the presence of doulas in birth and in the postpartum period play an important role in helping parents and infants create a foundation for success.

As the director of Start Early’s Enterprise Project Management Office, Colleen Vehr knew the early months and years of a child’s life are critical to their learning, growth, and development. Knowing this, she was particularly grateful to be able to have extended time away from work to focus on her rapidly growing family and providing for her newborns’ needs as they grew and changed each day.

As a mother of twins who spent time in the NICU, Vehr shares, “I really cherish the time I was able to spend at home nurturing my babies so they could thrive in the way that all children deserve.”

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Providing parents with paid time off from work to care for their young children helps families begin their journey on a strong foundation of caring, consistent relationships. Infants experience rapid rates of brain development fueled by nurturing and consistent relationship with caregiving adults, and these earliest interactions have a significant, long-lasting impact on executive functioning, early communication, and problem-solving skills.

Bridget Byville, vice president of Development, and another recent mother at Start Early recalls how her parental leave helped get her son to a place where he was healthy and thriving. “My parental leave helped us get into the cadence of being a family and creating those social emotional connections that we needed. It was especially beneficial for creating a bond with this tiny human — who is very fragile — and it gave me time to focus on my health and well-being post labor,” she shares.

Caregiver holding babyIndeed, research has found that paid family leave leads to a wealth of benefits related to child development and child and caregiver health. One recent study found that paid leave was linked to better language, cognitive and social emotional outcomes in toddlers regardless of socioeconomic status and fewer infant behavior problems. Research also suggests that parental leave — especially paid leave — can support children’s health during this critical window, including positively affecting breastfeeding rates and duration, reducing the risk of infant mortality, and increasing the likelihood of infants receiving well-baby care and vaccinations.

The benefits that paid leave produces for young children and their families have not only compelled Start Early to advocate for policies that increase access to paid leave but has compelled our organization to adopt our own paid leave policies, including providing up to 6 months of paid maternity, paternity or adoption leave for employees.

The U.S. is one of only eight countries that does not offer paid leave, forcing parents to cobble together paid personal time, sick leave and short-term disability, if available or feasible. As a result, the average maternity leave in the U.S. is about 10 weeks.

“When you invest in your people, they invest back in the organization which ultimately leads to increased retention. I feel a much stronger sense of loyalty to Start Early because of the space they made for my family.

Bridget Byville, vice president of Development
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Vehr reflects on how even a 3-month policy wouldn’t have felt sufficient. “With a 3-month policy, I would have spent about a third of my leave with at least one child in the hospital. The extended 6-month leave meant that I could spend meaningful time, especially in those precious early days, focused on establishing new routines and caring for my children.”

Decreasing an employee’s salary and retirement savings opportunities at a time when their expenses are increasing causes high levels of stress, conditions that have been shown to negatively affect children’s growth and development. Start Early’s parental leave program also aligns with research evidence about the impact caregiver stress and access to high-quality healthcare has on young children by providing employees with 100% of their salary and benefits during parental leave.

“I was really one of the fortunate parents in the NICU,” says Vehr. “I think about mothers who have to return to work before they’ve fully healed or parents who are forced to return to work when their little ones are so very young because not receiving a paycheck is simply not an option.”

A comprehensive paid parental leave program can aid in retaining women in the workforce. One study from Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that implementing paid parental leave policies in California and New Jersey resulted in a 20 percent reduction in the number of women exiting their jobs in the first year after welcoming a child and up to a 50 percent reduction after 5 years.

“When you invest in your people, they invest back in the organization which ultimately leads to increased retention,” notes Byville. “I feel a much stronger sense of loyalty to Start Early because of the space they made for my family.”

Vehr agrees, “I feel a deeper sense of commitment to our organization and more cared for as an employee.” She adds, “it really calls on employers to consider a far more empathetic, humane approach to parental and family leave, and it also calls on our lawmakers to support employers with that aim.”

The benefits of paid parental leave set families, employers, and our communities up for success, which is why Start Early will continue to advocate for family-friendly policies that support time for parents and caregivers to bond with and care for their children without jeopardizing their ability to afford basic needs.

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Laura, a professor of nursing at Bradley University, signed up for Family Connects Illinois with her students in mind. The evidence-based, universal home visiting program is offered to families with newborn children in Peoria County.

“As I was signing the paperwork to be induced, hospital staff shared information about this free program that they thought I might be interested in,” she recalls. “I thought I would see what it was about not only for myself, but to help connect my students to new opportunities that further their knowledge.”

After giving birth, Laura returned home with her newborn son, Tommy. She had all but forgotten about the program until she received a call a few weeks later, connecting her to her nurse home visitor, Marianne.

Educational & Emotional Support

Laura's daughter and newborn son The birth of a new family member can be both an exciting and overwhelming time, even before the unique circumstances created by the global pandemic. Laura immediately found her phone conversations, text messages and virtual home visits helpful.

“With COVID limiting our resources, it was nice to have an outside connection — someone here to listen and talk, who is very knowledgeable and nonjudgmental,” she explains.

Laura laughs a little as she admits that Tommy hasn’t been her easiest baby, earning the nickname “Mr. Grunty Pants.” After Tommy was diagnosed with reflux, Marianne encouraged safe sleeping habits and offered tips on how to help him sleep and to hold him upright after feedings. She also shared information about the different periods of crying, which helped Laura and her husband reestablish what they had known with other babies but had forgotten.

“Marianne helped us remember that he’s not crying to be annoying, he’s crying to tell us something. She also reinforced that what we are experiencing is normal, although frustrating. It is a phase of Tommy’s development, and it will pass,” Laura recalls.

The program also provided Laura with an extra layer of emotional support. In a time that is usually focused on the new baby, she found a safe space to talk with Marianne about her other children, the loss of her second daughter at 23 weeks and 3 days, and the impact on her emotional health for each subsequent pregnancy.

Laura's daughter and newborn son“After being pregnant for so long and caring for others, I felt seen, loved and cared for,” she remembers. “When we didn’t have family support, the extra emotional and educational support she gave us was encouraging and helpful. Marianne fostered a caring relationship with my family and helped enhance a smoother transition with a new baby and the changing of sibling and family dynamics.”

Furthering Knowledge

In her maternal newborn clinical, Laura teaches nursing students about nurse postpartum home visits, including conducting an assessment, providing family education, breastfeeding and bottle feeding support, and fostering a caring relationship with the family. After experiencing the program and its benefits, Laura is eager to pair her nursing students with Family Connects nurses to witness the program first hand.

Laura's family“The postpartum home care visit offers nurses the opportunity to reinforce self and infant care,” Laura explains. “The holistic care Marianne delivered helped me better adjust to the changes that Tommy brought to our family. She provided the support and encouragement that I needed, and for that I am grateful as it not only benefited me and Tommy, but my whole family.”

“During learning, students are often so focused on getting the answer right and what’s in the textbook, and they get such brief glimpses into the unique lives and needs of families during their clinical time at the hospital,” she concludes. “Bringing a new baby into a family is a stressful time for all families. Raising awareness of universal newborn support programs like Family Connects Illinois can help our future nurses ensure all families get connected to resources in the community once they leave the hospital.”

For Diana Barrios, the best thing about being a new mother is [click to hear audio] “seeing him smile. He’s such a happy baby. Knowing that he’s happy, makes me happy.”

Now 6-months old, Matteo is almost crawling and sitting up by himself, and Diana has enjoyed watching him grow. “He’s really strong,” she says. “I’m just amazed with him.”

Diana’s confidence makes it easy to forget that earlier this year, she faced the uncertainty of giving birth during a global pandemic while living more than 2,700 miles away from her family and her support network in Venezuela. She explains, [click to hear audio] “There are a lot of things we don’t know here. We’re in a new country, we’re alone basically.”

That’s why a few months before her due date, the clinic where Diana went for prenatal checkups connected her with Start Early’s Health Parents & Babies program. Through the program, Diana was paired with her doula, Patricia Ceja-Muhsen.

Support through COVID-19 and Delivery

The Barrio Family Diana says Patricia has been her main support over the past year. In the months leading up to her birth, they would talk about prenatal care, fetal development and how Diana could best advocate for herself and her child. When Illinois’ stay-at-home order was implemented in March, Patricia continued to support Diana through video chats, phone calls and text messages.

Then, just weeks before her due date, Diana and her husband each tested positive for COVID-19. She recalls crying as she called Patricia, who helped connect her with a therapist and walked her though what would happen at the hospital if she were still positive on the day of the birth. Thankfully, her symptoms were mild and she tested negative before her delivery after self-quarantining.

Due to the hospital’s COVID-19 restrictions, Diana was only allowed to have one person with her in the delivery room: her husband. But even though Patricia wasn’t physically in the room, she constantly checked in with Diana to guide her through the birthing process and ensure it was going as planned. [click to hear audio] “She was always making sure, ‘Oh, you should ask for this.’ It was like she was there,” Diana recalls.

The strong doula-parent relationship that Diana and Patricia have built has been a lifeline for Diana. [click to hear audio] “I’m alone here. My mom just passed away two months ago, and she was my guidance.” Not having her mother to talk to has been difficult, but Diana is comforted knowing her mom knew she had support here in Chicago. [click to hear audio] “Because she knew, ‘Oh no, she’s not all alone because Patricia’s there, she’s going to help her.’”

Importance of Starting Early

Mateo Barrio smiling To Diana, early learning and care is important because there isn’t a parenting manual and like every parent, she wants what is best for her son. She knows the resources and supports she’s received from her doula and home visitors are laying the foundation for her son’s future success.

This knowledge has empowered her to take the lead in being Matteo’s advocate and best teacher. While she learned many of the basics of parenting watching her brother raise two children — like changing a diaper — she wasn’t aware of the developmental milestones for infants and toddlers or activities that helped babies reach them.

[click to hear audio] “I didn’t have any idea about the milestones and all the things that I’m learning now,” she says “But I would say that I know them now because of Patricia.”

As she looks ahead to the future, Diana has many dreams for her family. Although English will be Matteo’s first language, Diana believes it is important that he be able to speak, read and write in Spanish. She looks forward to deepening their bond by teaching him in the coming years.

In the meantime, she’s helping her son continue to meet his developmental milestone by sitting on the floor each day, talking and singing with him. [click to hear audio] “I talk to him. He’s going to be a talker, because of me,” she says proudly.

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