MICHIGAN CITY — “We believe that parenting is not an easy job. Many parents have questions on what to expect and that’s what we are here for.”

That’s the word from Pamela Henderson, development director at Dunebook, where a program to make that parenting job a little easier recently received national accreditation.

“Healthy Families is a free home visitation program offering prenatal and newborn support,” program manager Gabby Ginther said. “We educate parents about their child’s development and help them to know what to expect and how to support each stage of growth.”

The program started in La Porte County in 1996, and is now been accredited by Prevent Child Abuse America, through its Healthy Families America program, “as a provider of high-quality home visiting services to families who want to improve their child’s health, nutrition and developmental outcomes.”

The mission of Healthy Families, according to Henderson, “is to support new parents and empower them to be the best parents they can be by developing healthy children physically, emotionally, socially and educationally.”

Healthy Families offers prenatal and newborn support, Ginther said.

“Healthy Families serves families prenatally, enrolling newborns within 90 days of birth. Families are encouraged to remain in the program for three years.”

It’s available to any family meeting eligibility requirements: They must live in La Porte County and fall at 250 percent or lower of the Federal Poverty Line. There is a Spanish-speaking home visitor, and Dunebrook would contract with an interpreter for assistance to parents with hearing or visual impairments.

“HFA is a signature program of PCA America,” Henderson said. “Expectant and new parents have common questions about their child’s development. HFA connects with families through community partners like hospitals and pediatricians to find the answers to those questions, meeting within the familiarity and convenience of the family’s own home.”

She called it an “accessible, voluntary and well-received service” that stays with parents through those first tough years.

“Each stage of growth brings new questions and parenting challenges, as well as new joys,” Ginther said. “Common parenting questions include whether their baby is getting enough nutrition; how much should my baby sleep; when should we start potty training; or how do we address tantrums.

“Through the years, child development experts have made great strides in understanding early child development and the impact on parents’ relationships with their children, which has helped shape parenting practices,” she said.

“We know that the early years are so critical and set the course for children’s good health and influence their future success in school, relationships and work. We share that knowledge with parents so they can feel good about their parenting and know they are helping their children thrive.”

“The American Dream starts with a happy, healthy childhood,” said Dan Duffy, president and CEO of PCA America. “Our HFA professionals offer evidence-based best practices to provide answers to questions, individualized support when needed most, and linkages to community services.

“As we congratulate Dunebrook, we also recognize the state and community leadership that has contributed to success in La Porte County.”

The accreditation process is based on a stringent set of 12 critical elements based on more than 30 years of research, he said. The process involves an in-depth examination of the site’s operation, as well as the quality of visits made by HFA home visitors.

“We commend Dunebrook for opening itself up to such an intensive review process,” said Kathleen Strader, national director of HFA. “We believe that all families and all communities deserve access to quality home visiting services.”

Dunebrook offers only the best, Henderson said.

“These are educated, trained, paid professionals going into homes. Dunebrook’s staff members have educational backgrounds which include social work, education, psychology, child development and/or human services.”

In addition, she said, Dunebrook provided continuous “internal and external trainings to staff addressing topics such as suicide prevention and responding to individuals with suicidal ideologies, strengths-based services, substance use and trauma-informed care.”

Home visitors are trained in areas that “can cause stress and worry to just about every new parent,” Ginther said, “caring for a new baby and coping with a myriad of other potential stresses, such as financial, housing, partner relationship, etc., that may become heightened with an addition to the family.”

Most importantly, she said, “Our home visitors are kind, caring and non-judgmental individuals who want to support and encourage parents.

“We demonstrate fun learning activities that they can do with their children, such as making a rain stick or tambourine. Activities like these use simple, inexpensive household products.”

When a parent reaches out for help, Ginther said, Home Visitors assist by teaching “child development information and milestones, safety topics” and assist with other needs by linking families to agencies in the community for support.

“We rely upon community partners and professionals to help us connect with our target audience of expectant and new parents,” Henderson said. “Similarly, we look to these resources to support families when we make referrals for services beyond our scope of expertise. In that regard, we are surrounding parents with support.”

Healthy Families also performs developmental screens to ensure the child is on track developmentally, she said. “We also help parents identify and work toward family and/or personal goals.”

When parents reach goals, they earn points which can be redeemed at the Family Depot at Dunebrook, which has “items such as diapers and other baby items, learning toys and safety gates. We also distribute books to children at home visits to help parents instil an early love of learning.”

When parents complete the initial assessment, Healthy Families can also provide a free pack ‘n’ play if the child does not have a safe place to sleep.

In 2018, “our program served 229 families in La Porte County,” Ginther said. “It is a privilege to work alongside parents to help them give their child the very best start in life.”

Dunebrook is located at 7451 W. Johnson Road, Michigan City, and has been supporting families since 1989. Parents interested in the Healthy Families Program can call (219) 874-0007 and ask for Emily or Ebony.

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