It’s not easy to start something new. It’s even more challenging during a pandemic.
One year ago, the Kansas Children’s Service League opened an office in Iola to help families with babies and toddlers get off to the best possible start.
It’s called the Healthy Families program, and it offers weekly visits and assistance to families to protect and promote the well-being of children.
COVID-19 hit just as the staff was getting established, forcing them to modify their plans as they went.
And as the staff celebrates the first anniversary of opening its Iola office, they reflected on the challenges they’ve had to overcome. It hasn’t been easy, but they’re now planning to reach out to an even wider array of families.
Alisha Turner came aboard in January as the supervisor, joining KCSL’s new Iola office after five years working as a home visitor with the Neosho County Health Department.
She spent the first few months of 2020 hiring staff and setting up the program. The Iola office serves Allen, Neosho and Wilson counties.
By June, just as the state was coming out of a lockdown, Turner’s two new staff members were ready to start meeting with families by utilizing outdoor “porch visits.” The family support staff would stay at least 6 feet away and everyone wore masks.
When the weather turned colder, they turned to phone calls and virtual meetings.
“We just had to be more creative,” Turner said. “We’ve made some great connections with families. We’re still making those bonds. It’s just a little different.”
THE KANSAS Children’s Service League is a statewide organization established in 1893.
A major goal is to prevent child abuse and neglect through education and assistance, Jamie VanCompernolle, assistant director for the Healthy Families program, said.
“Being able to work with families early, and get them the resources they need to be successful, makes all the difference for them, for their children and for the community,” VanCompernolle said.
“I’ve never met a family that doesn’t want to be together, but sometimes it’s hard. You don’t know what you don’t know. Not everyone has good role models. Not everyone has the resources they need.”
KCSL serves more than 40,000 children and families through a variety of programs. In addition to the Healthy Families program, KCSL also offers foster care and adoption programs, clinical services and private infant adoption programs.
“We look different in each of the communities across the state, depending on what the need is,” VanCompernolle said.
Healthy Families is similar to the Parents As Teachers program, in that it targets children up to age 3, which is considered a critical time for development. At that early stage, trained specialists can ensure children are meeting developmental milestones and can intervene with potential areas of risk.
The biggest difference between Healthy Families and Parents As Teachers is the type of families served. Parents As Teachers programs are available to any family regardless of need.
The Healthy Families program targets at-risk families, such as those in single parent and low-income homes. Families must qualify for the program. It is free and voluntary.
If approved, families will meet at least once a week with a specialist who will provide education about their child’s development and help with a variety of needs. That could include referrals to mental or physical health experts, food pantries or other assistance programs, job assistance or, in some cases, even a ride to a medical appointment or job interview.
The Iola office was established to reach a pocket of Southeast Kansas that wasn’t served by other programs in Independence and Pittsburg. It was one of two KSCL programs added in 2020; the other is in Wichita.
AS THE IOLA office was getting established, all referrals came from DCF, the Department of Children and Families.
Now, the group is ready to start taking referrals from other sources. That can include physicians, therapists, or even families themselves.
Having referrals from DCF helped get the program going in Iola, Turner and VanCompernolle said.
But they worry children and families in need might not be identified because of the pandemic. In a typical year, those families might catch the attention of a daycare provider or a family doctor. With families forced to limit their public interactions, their needs might not be apparent.
“The piece that’s been disrupted is that children aren’t in school or in daycares. They haven’t been in the places where concerns would be brought to light,” VanCompernolle said. “Referrals have not been what they would be if we weren’t in a pandemic, so our staff is doing the best they can to engage with families. As the program gets more established, we’re hoping to see our caseloads grow.”
KCSL offices across the state had to learn how to adapt to virtual programs when the pandemic hit.
For the Iola office, they simply started out that way.
“It’s been a slower start than we anticipated and definitely slower than it would have been in a normal time,” VanCompernolle said.
“I think we’ll have a lot of growth once we start to return to normal.”
Turner, who lives in Humboldt with her husband and children, had never worked from home before. Not only did she need to establish the program, she also had to hire staff via online interviews.
She’s looking forward to getting out into the community. In a typical year, she would participate in various events like having a booth at community festivals and health fairs. She would make the rounds of local businesses, schools and organizations to introduce herself and the program.
She also still has some work to do when it comes to setting up the physical office at 106 S. Washington Ave.
“We don’t even have our name on the door or windows yet. We haven’t had a ribbon cutting,” she said. “That was all part of the plan, and COVID happened. It might be an anniversary plan.”