By RICK KAZMER
United Way of the Laurel Highlands
Kathleen Bickford and Lisa Miller have a unique perspective on growing families in Cambria and Somerset counties.
For about 150 first-time moms, they are a source of support from 28 weeks before birth until the child is 2 years old.
"We are there to help," Bickford said.
She and Miller are registered nurses with the Nurse-Family Partnership program. The nurses on their teams visit moms, either at home or another place where the mom feels comfortable, bi-weekly for the 2 1/2 years they are in the program, meant for income-eligible women.
Locally, the program is supported by the United Way of the Laurel Highlands. Last year, the United Way invested more than $50,000 in the program, operated by the Home Nursing Agency. The nurses provide medical screenings and counsel for the moms and the growing babies. Heartbeats are monitored during visits, along with other vital signs for mom and baby. Early intervention is key. The nurses look for signs of autism or other disorders. They then make sure the moms are communicating with their doctors.
"As soon as they are born, we are assessing," Miller said.
She added that sometimes the moms "just need somebody to listen to them."
Bickford and Miller said that most of the moms in the program are in their 20s, but sometimes they have teenagers. The goal for the nurses is to help the young moms be successful mothers, and to reach their goals in life.
That might mean earning a GED, finding a way to stay in school or enrolling in college.
"We encourage them to make realistic goals," Miller said. "You want to be a nurse? Let's work on transportation, first."
The nurses sometimes help the moms put together plans for the basic foundation they will need to reach their goals.
Transportation and housing availability are growing concerns. A mom living in a remote part of either county may have a hard time traveling to doctor appointments. Affordable housing can be hard to find, they said.
"If they are out in that rural area -- in Salisbury -- they are going to Johnstown to the OB," Miller said.
Bickford and Miller have been with the program for about eight years. They said drugs, including heroin, meth and marijuana, remain problems. Nicotine and vaping are also concerns.
When asked to describe some success stories, both nurses had similar examples.
They are moms who were empowered to have a healthy pregnancy while also advancing their life goals.
They listed breastfeeding, continuing education and finding jobs as benchmarks their clients are meeting. The program is voluntary, but few choose to leave the evidence-based, results-driven plan.
Nurse-Family Partnership is part of the United Way's Early Childhood Pathway. Along with other programs, participating families have 98% up-to-date immunizations, 100% referred to annual development screenings and 90% transitioned into early learning development programs.
"They achieve the goals they wanted to achieve," Bickford said. "I was there to guide them."