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JMU Students Work for Healthy Families

By: Jordan Pye
Posted: March 19, 2010

PHOTO: JMU Students meetingLocated in Stanley, VA, not far from JMU’s campus, the Healthy Families of Page County organization offers students an opportunity to assist families at risk for child abuse and neglect.

Launched in 2001 with support from the Virginia Department of Social Services and Prevent Child Abuse Virginia, Healthy Families of Page County (HFPC) is a free resource for parenting advice and assistance to local families.

“Healthy Families of Page County program is based on a national model that provides education, resources and support to the most vulnerable first-time parents in a given target population,” Program Director Emily Akerson said.

The major goals of HFPC are to reduce child abuse and promote positive parenting – this means answering families’ questions about childrearing, but also helping with specific issues like establishing a relationship with a primary care physician, screening for developmental delays and preparing children for school by kindergarten age.

“The program is asset-based – it works off strengths,” Akerson said. “There is the recognition that all parents, no matter how stressed, have strengths, and essentially to fan that into flame to allow that family unit to thrive.”

Produced from research on families most at risk for “poor parenting outcomes,” Healthy Families gives a 15-item screening tool to members of the target population during prenatal medical visits.. After a home visit from a trained specialist, HFPC can offer an identified family their ongoing support by creating a set of goals and tools to help the family reach those goals.

“Having that home visitor notice and observe and celebrate with that mom or that dad how [the child] is responding to them is very exciting,” Akerson said. “Those are things that help parents to be so successful and to support the best in that baby, because there’s just a whole lot of resilience that’s built with a strong parent-child attachment.”

HFPC’s association with IIHHS also allows JMU students to enhance the organization’s capacity through internships and volunteerism.

“Students were involved from the earliest days of the Healthy Families program,” Akerson said, “and actually we couldn’t have done it without them.”

In addition to earning course credit through placement with HFPC, students experience social work by observing home visits, assisting with baby health checks and connecting families to existing resources in their community. The practicum course is open to all majors, and in the past has attracted students from social work, nursing, psychology, health sciences, dietetics, occupational therapy, and even from communications and media arts and design. As interns with HFPC, students help individual families cope with specific child-rearing issues through methods tailored to the parents’ learning needs.

“The home visitor who visited each of these families every week would identify a challenge that a particular family was having,” Akerson explained, “and so the students would go out with the home visitor…get to know that family, and then in a very evidence-based and targeted way develop resource materials [and] look into the literature and develop accessible resources for that family.”

For example, some past nursing students created a resource booklet to learn about breastfeeding, another intern developed materials on toilet training, and a group of dietetics students compiled information on healthy snacks and initiating first foods. Students also monitor the twice-weekly playgroups that help parents and children broaden their social support network with each other through developmentally appropriate bonding activities.

“Another reason it is just a fabulous program for student learning is that it’s really based on the evidence,” Akerson added, “and there is a high priority in all of the activities being supported by the research.”

Kate Pazdan, a Family Resource Specialist and Program Supervisor for HFPC, got her start with the organization as a JMU student intern while studying health assessment and promotion.

“I think HFPC is a valuable learning experience for students because it allows students to develop skills that are necessary in future professions and also provides opportunities to work within a rural community,” Pazdan said.

This semester three psychology students are completing a 40-hour practicum with HFPC.

“I decided to do a field placement with Healthy Families because I enjoy the facet of psychology that deals with early interventions for at risk children,” junior Heidi Imrisek said. In addition to completing office tasks she and fellow intern, junior Crystal Carter, are spending their semester collaborating on a family satisfaction survey and analyzing the feedback for future improvements to the program.
 
Imrisek said her experience with Healthy Families has been a very positive one.

“I have learned a lot about the Healthy Families model and how the program operates…within a rural community and the unique challenges associated with the rural setting,” Imrisek said.

Carter agreed that the internship has been a valuable addition to her education.

“Healthy Families is a great program that reaches out to families in need, and I am really excited to be a part of that,” she said.

Sophomore Betsy Ulrope came across the opportunity while searching for a field placement to build her resume, and said the program resonated with her because her own sister is a young mother.

“If more families are involved in this program, the children and parents of these families will benefit and hopefully lead fuller and richer lives in [a] small community with limited resources,” Ulrope said.  

Akerson agreed that the organization not only helps Page County families, but also gives students a real-world work experience while they give back to the area.

“The students have a wonderful opportunity to look at community engagement, with respect to building collaborative and beautifully embedded and supported programs where persons from a wide variety of sectors from the community are invested,” Akerson said.