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Offering young mothers a helping hand

December 4, 2001

Rebekah Fountain, left, a participant in the Healthy Kids program, plays with her 6-month-old son, Matthew Johnson, while her Healthy Kids nurse, Bonnie Tonkin, center, and her mom, Mimi Fountain, join in at Fountain’s home in Durango, on Wednesday.

By Jennifer Reeder
Special to the Herald

Rebekah Fountain was 16, pregnant and "a little scared." But the Durango High School junior decided to keep her baby. So her mother, Mimi Fountain, called Durango’s Women’s Resource Center looking for direction and guidance.

That’s when the Fountains found out about Healthy Kids – a relatively new program that pairs registered nurses with first-time, low-income mothers. Through the free program, nurse Bonnie Tonkin started meeting with Rebekah Fountain last winter to talk about nutrition, exercise and the baby’s development. Nurses initially meet with mothers weekly and continue to meet with them at least once a month until the child’s second birthday.

"We got so close to Bonnie; we love her," Mimi Fountain said.

After Matthew’s birth in June, Tonkin continued to visit Rebekah Fountain to ensure mother and child’s safety.

"She brings presents sometimes, like safety plugs, cabinet locks and a (baby backpack)," Rebekah said. "It’s a really great program – all the love and support and information they give you tells you what to look forward to."

Rebekah, now a senior in high school, and her mother are taking a nursing course at Pueblo Community College. Rebekah wants to work in the obstetrics unit because her experience was so positive, she said.

Healthy Kids, which operates out of San Juan Basin Health Department, started taking referrals from La Plata, Archuleta, Montezuma, San Juan and Dolores counties in March of 2000. Nurses start visiting mothers in their homes preferably before the 16th week of pregnancy and at the latest by the 28th, said Healthy Kids Director Mary Goggin.

The program’s main objectives are to promote the physical health of the mother and the developing child as well as parenting skills, Goggin said. The program also focuses on supporting the mother in her choices and achieving her goals.

"The premise is that the mother is the expert in her own life," Goggin said. "We point out her strengths, the positive aspects of what she’s doing. Our nurses ask, ‘What is your heart’s desire?’"

Once goals are set, Goggin said the nurses help to keep mothers on track by asking things such as, "‘How’s that GED course going? Did you get those safety covers on the light plugs yet?’"

There are eight nurses involved with Durango’s Healthy Kids program, which can accommodate women who speak Spanish.

The Healthy Kids program is based on research by Dr. David Olds, who tested the nurse/family partnership idea in 1977 and in 1990 and found it helped reduce children’s injuries, improved women’s prenatal health and reduced the use of welfare and food stamps.

A Denver-based nonprofit, Invest in Kids, brought the concept to Colorado and helped set up the state’s first program in Durango. The program is now available in 38 of Colorado’s 64 counties.

"We were spoiled starting in Durango," said Invest in Kids Executive Director Jennifer Atler. "Everyone there works together really well. They’re committed to children."

Atler initially met with a number of community leaders including Bill Mashaw, a board member of Big Brothers Big Sisters. Mashaw said he saw a need for preventative programs after a career as an FBI agent left him disillusioned with the number of young people being sent to prison.

"Our prison system needed reform from the standpoint of rehabilitating people," he said. Mashaw said it is important to have a program like Healthy Kids that helps children get on the right track early in life.

Atler also met with Lee Taylor, executive director of Tri-County Head Start. Taylor said that Healthy Kids, which spends approximately $3,000 per family, is cost-effective in the long run. "It costs $88,000 a year to institutionalize one kid," Taylor said. "By investing in kids early, we get a bigger bang out of our bucks."

Healthy Kids was initially funded by local dollars, but the 2000 state Legislature allocated tobacco settlement dollars to the program. Of the $4.3 million appropriated to the program for fiscal year 2001-2002, the Durango-based program will receive $358,936, Atler said. There are 95 local families enrolled in Healthy Kids.

Lynn Westberg, director of San Juan Basin Health, said that because Healthy Kids emphasizes the strengths of the mother, all eligible women should consider applying.

"The program is totally nonjudgmental," Westberg said. "It’s just there to provide support for the mom and her new baby."

Mimi Fountain agreed. "It makes you feel spoiled and special, having your own nurse come and check on you," she said.

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