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YWCA’s Healthy Families program is the foundation of a healthy start in life

If you have kids, you know how challenging those first few years can be. The addition of a new baby is a major life transition that can be overwhelming even in the best of circumstances. No one should have to go it alone.

Here on Hawaii Island, with so many new parents living in rural or less affluent areas, there is an even greater need for support during a baby’s critical first three years. That’s where YWCA of Hawaii Island’s Healthy Families program comes in. For more than 30 years, the program has been providing home visiting services to thousands of eligible East Hawaii families. Staff partner with new parents to address individual needs, set and support goals, and build a home environment centered around the baby.

To identify families who can benefit from the program, staff conduct voluntary screening, assessment, and referrals to pregnant and post-partum women, expectant fathers, and caregivers of newborns who meet the program eligibility criteria. Healthy Families conducts 1600 screenings per year, everywhere from the hospital, pediatrician and OB/GYN offices, to malls, health fairs and supermarkets. The program can accommodate 68 families at a time and is typically at capacity.

Director Andy Kahili said many people are surprised to learn that the program is not just for low-income families (although that is the majority). Other eligibility criteria include families with smokers, mothers under age 21, military, low student achievement, substance abuse problems, or other children who are developmentally disabled.

Once enrolled, each family is invited to develop, in partnership with their home visitor, a Family Support Plan which describes their goals. They then participate in regularly scheduled home visits in order to work towards those family goals.

These home visits can be a lifeline. Starting right after baby arrives home, Healthy Families staff visit weekly to talk story with parents and ensure baby’s development is on track. Visits follow the national Nurturing Parenting curriculum, but are tailored especially to our local culture. “Babies don’t come with a manual!” Andy says. So staff cover a huge range of topics. In the early days this includes breastfeeding, swaddling, and maybe helping hesitant new dads learn the “football hold” or infant massage techniques so they can feel more comfortable in their role as a helper.  They’ll go over the importance of a family routine and celebrations, dental care and immunizations, reading to baby, potty training, developmental milestones like grasping a one-inch block with two fingers or the ability to say 15 words by a certain age…the list goes on!

At the same time, staff and counselors screen for domestic violence, tobacco or substance use, depression or other red flags, and then help parents with solutions.

When baby is about 6-9 months old, visits become bi-monthly, going to monthly at 18 months. Around age two, staff introduce transition preparation so parents can begin planning for baby’s next phase. Keiki “graduate” at age 3 and are given a backpack filled with everything they need to start preschool.

Throughout the entire enrollment, Healthy Families also connects parents with helpful services and information that supports baby’s learning, safety, and developmental stimulation. The services are free, voluntary, and confidential.

Andy said that while the main focus is on a healthy start for the child, the program aims to empower families to improve their lives and encourage them to raise healthy well-adjusted children who will become future leaders in our community. “We also recognize that women hold a unique position in the family,” he said. “By empowering them to make needed changes that will influence the lives of their children, we can help lift them out of poverty, despair, and negative domestic realities, so they have better access to economic opportunity, hope, and positive domestic outcomes.”

To learn more or find out if you qualify for the Healthy Families program, call (808) 930-5727.

Healthy Families is supported by the Hawaii State Department of Health (DOH), Maternal and Child Health Branch and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Healthy Families is one of YWCA of Hawaii Island’s three signature programs. The others are Sexual Assault Support Services, providing support to victims and survivors of sexual violence island-wide including a 24/7 crisis hotline; and the YWCA Preschool, one of the only nationally accredited, developmental preschools in East Hawaii.



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