June 18, 2012

The families gathering recently at the Montavilla picnic shelter appeared like folks at any such summertime reunion, passing around hugs, plates of food and laughter. But tucked amid the baby strollers and balloons on that sunny day were big public health success stories.

Each family attending the event in east Portland on June 10 was there to celebrate their journey with their public health nurse as part of the first reunion of Multnomah County’s Nurse-Family Partnership. Nearly 190 people attended what is expected to be an annual event.

For 12 years, more than 1,700 first-time mothers have worked closely with county nurses to become a great parent, finish their education and work to become economically independent.

“Shona has been a friend, a sister, a second mother, a mentor. She helped mold me into the woman you see today,’’ said Monique Clayton as she hugged public health nurse Shona Brunton.

The county’s home visiting program began in 1999 when four county health nurses launched the local model. Today, 16 nurses and three nurse supervisors participate and the program has been recognized nationwide as a model program in helping families.

Nurses connect with women early in their pregnancy and remain through their child’s second birthday, ensuring the mothers get good prenatal care, avoid tobacco, alcohol and drugs. They also help them find a vision for their future, including finishing their education and finding a career.

With her nurse’s guidance, Clayton said she got the support she needed to breastfeed and overcome self-esteem issues that she’d struggled with her whole life. At 27, she is working, independent and thrilled with her daughter, Airiona, who skipped and sang while wearing hot pink sunglasses in the June sun.

“Nurse-Family Partnership is an important part of our work in supporting young families in Multnomah County,’’ said Health Department Director Lillian Shirley.

"The program has demonstrated significant success in improving pregnancy outcomes, improving child health and development and improving the economic self sufficiency of participating families. Along with our WIC services, community-based partnerships and work in healthy public policy, the partnership program helps us ensure that all families in Multnomah County get a good start. “

Studies conducted by The Rand Corporation, Brookings Institution and Washington State Institute for Public Policy all report that every dollar invested in the partnership returned up to $5.70 for taxpayers.

The studies also found the program cut in half the number of child abuse and emergency room visits for accidents and poisonings. Behavioral and intellectual problems in the children were reduced by nearly 70 percent.

But the most obvious impact at the June 10 celebration was in the empowered lives of the women, babies and families gathered.

Rebecca Carrasco was just 16 and in high school when she met her nurse Barbara Schoneger. Carrasco said she was expecting the woman who visited her to “nag,’’ or judge her. Instead, she found a rock-solid resource and adviser she could talk to and work through issues that were uncomfortable even for her close family.

Carrasco managed successfully to focus on graduating from high school and enrolling in community college where she completed a medical program. She has now gone to work in the ob-gyn field. Her son Ayden, who will be 2 years old in the fall, is thriving.

According to state statistics, at least 42 percent of mothers entering the program without a high school diploma go on to earn one and another 15 percent are working toward that goal.

“Barbara didn’t even know me, but she believed in me,’’ Carrasco said. “And that made the difference.”

At the picnic, Schoneger sat on the grass surrounded by toddlers, parents -- and grandparents. Brian McMurtry said as a first- time grandparent, “who hadn’t had a baby around in 17 years,” he and his wife, Terrie, loved having another adult support their goals for their daughter Jessica when she became a teen mom.

“We’re so thankful Barbara was there. Jessica is a teen mom and still going to school so it was really comforting to have a professional come out and work us. She shared information in a way that Jessica could hear it.’’

Since Jessica had her son, Aden, 10 months, she has enrolled in a Portland Community College program to earn her diploma and earned a 4.0 her first semester.

“She’s really blossomed into a responsible person,’’ McMurtry said proudly of his daughter. “And Barbara was there at every stage.’’

For more information visit nursefamilypartnership.org and web.multco.us/health