MASON COUNTY — A local program offers support and guidance during the transitional phase of pregnancy and birth and beyond, and a long-term plan for self-sufficiency in new families.
John Machir, program director for Mountain State Healthy Family in Mason County, said that the voluntary program is aimed at families who are expecting a baby or have a baby one month old or younger.
“That’s our enrollment period,” said Machir. “Our first goal is to get good health outcomes for mom and baby.”
Mason County, Machir said, was selected for the program because of its fairly dismal statistics.
“We had a child abuse rate that was at 125 percent of the state average,” said Machir. “We had one of the highest infant mortality rates and lowest birth weights in the state because of the amount of smoking during pregnancy. We’ve also had rampant drug use numbers in this county.”
Part of the purpose of this program, said Machir, is to prevent child abuse.
“If you have a lot of these risk factors and not a lot of developmental information for parenting, then the risk of abuse for those children increases,” said Machir. “So what we’re doing is trying to provide education for the parents and modeling those parenting principles to reduce that chance.”
A significant part of the focus is self-sufficiency, said Machir, adding that he believes that success and independence come only after hard work and struggle.
But many of the families need support and practical help before they can get to that point. Some participants may be receiving food stamps, medicaid, or subsidized housing or some combination of those benefits.
“But some of them don’t even have that. We found some who are surfing from sofa to sofa, not knowing where they’re going to sleep the next night. They don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and they’re pregnant,” said Machir.
So the program staff begins to look at practicalities first.
“The first thing we do is try to stop the haemorrhaging,” said Machir, explaining that this means sorting out the immediate basic needs, such as housing and food.
“We case-manage those needs. We connect people with housing resources and food resources. If they need job training skills, if they want to go back to school, we can help,” added Machir.
Machir said he and his staff put participants in contact with Roxanne Smith at the Heart of Appalachia Equal Education Opportunity Center. Smith then helps with financial aid paperwork and other prerequisites for attending college. Sometimes, said Machir, there’s a previous student loan default or other issue that must be worked out before people are able to return to school.
On the road to good physical and social outcomes it’s all about establishing a good relationship with the families early on, Machir said.
“We have to establish trust as soon as possible. Because if we don’t have that trust, we can have the best information in the world and it won’t do any good,” said Machir.
One of the ways the staff establishes this strong relationship is to help expectant parents set up nurseries.
“We want moms and dads to develop bonds with their babies,” said Machir. “And this doesn’t always come naturally. If you’re picking out the color of paint for the nursery and the bedding for the crib, the family becomes more bonded to the baby before the arrival.”
If there is drug abuse or other health issues in the family, program staff will connect members with drug abuse resources and health organizations.
“Most of our babies are born quite normal,” said Machir. “We counsel our moms on prenatal vitamins and breast-feeding. Breast-feeding is the preferred method — obesity has been linked to use of formula. Of course, there are circumstances under which breast-feeding isn’t possible.”
Once the baby is born, said Machir, the focus shifts to well-baby check-ups, immunizations and establishing good parenting habits.
“We talk to parents about picking up on their babies’ cues. And we talk to them about what their family values are,” said Machir. Again, he said, there’s an emphasis on practical need: car seats, cribs and other baby equipment.
“Two years ago when I came here I realized that wasn’t much in the way of these resources,” said Machir. “I talked to key individuals in the community and we established some protocols for coordinating services for early intervention; we talked about our goals for family resources and we developed a mission statement.”
This led to, among other programs, the development of the baby pantry. Bree Ramey, a Mountain State staff member initiated the program and has been a key figure in its growth.
“That specifically helps families to get the items they need,” said Machir of the baby pantry. “It has gained a lot of traction in the community because people are able to see the very obvious need. We don’t want babies sleeping in dresser drawers and laundry baskets and things like that.”
Machir added that he and the staff have worked with Contact of Mason — the rape crisis center — because a number of the women who participate have been victims of assault or domestic violence.
Machir said that the program looks at each family’s strengths.
“We use their strengths to resolve problems,” said Machir.
“We’re trying to help families, because babies don’t come with instruction manuals,” he added.
For more information about Mountain State Healthy Families in Mason County, contact John Machir or another staff member at (304) 857-0020.