By Kim Walter
WOODSTOCK -- Five years ago, Tiffany Green was 15, expecting a child and had no clue what to do. But Thursday night, she and her 41/2-year-old daughter Nataleigh graduated from the Healthy Families Shenandoah County program.
Green, now 20, stuck with the program and met goals that she set for herself, as well as for her daughter.
"I was young when I got pregnant," Green said before her graduation, which was held at Grace Baptist Church. "But this program taught me how to deal with certain behaviors and what to expect with my baby's development."
Jackie Funkhouser of Toms Brook was Green's support worker for the past few years, and witnessed the changes taking place for Green and her daughter.
"I'll put it this way -- things were very different for her when this all started," Funkhouser said. "Now, she's graduated high school, got a full time job, got her license and bought her own car ... not to mention she's provided a safe and stable environment for Nataleigh. I am very proud of this young woman."
Seven families, which have been in the program for at least 3 1/2 years, graduated from the Healthy Families program in 2012. Families can participate longer, or until the child is old enough for school. The program is offered to any first-time parents following an assessment of their needs, and screenings can take place before or after the baby is born.
Once parents have decided to try the program, a family support worker is chosen for them. The family support worker makes home visits, which decrease over time. During the visits, the child's development is evaluated, but the support worker is often in touch with the families for many other things.
Bilingual family support worker Becky Kipps said she always has enjoyed working with Spanish speaking families, so the job was a perfect fit for her.
"I'm a counselor, social worker, teacher, mom and sometimes grandmother, all wrapped up into one, depending on what I'm needed for on certain day," Kipps said. "One of our graduates has become a U.S. citizen and wife, and has voted for the first time, all in the past year."
Kipps said that not everyone comes into the program as a young parent, and one of the graduating families she worked with was actually "exemplary."
C.L. and Lupita George of Edinburg were married and had education, so they weren't a typical Healthy Families client.
C.L. George said that when they decided to have a child, they wanted to take it seriously
"This program has helped us in that any time we had a question, Becky had an answer," he said.
The program helped to assure the couple that their daughter, 4 1/2-year-old Katherine, was on track with her mental development. Kipps also became a part of the family while the family participated in the program.
Mrs. George noted her daughter "is always asking for Becky."
C.L. George said the Healthy Families program should get bigger.
"Parenting just isn't taken as seriously as it should be ... this program pushes the idea that things need to be done as a family, and earlier on is where it starts," he said.
He also said Kipps noticed that his wife had certain talents, and was able to find different volunteer opportunities for her since she wasn't able to work.
For Adrian Brown, Healthy Families not only helped through support, but also in making her more familiar with the area.
"I couldn't work anymore and was new to the area, so getting to know everybody and learning about all the different community resources was really nice," Brown said. When the Edinburg resident said she first became pregnant, her doctor's office in Harrisonburg brought up Healthy Families.
"Honestly, I didn't want kids for the longest time and I was 30 years old when I found out I was pregnant," Brown said of her situation at the time. "Needless to say, I talked about it with my son's father, and we decided to do it ... together. There's not a day goes by that I regret it. Plus, my kid is awesome, so that helps."
Brown said that Healthy Families clued her in to places like the county's pregnancy center as well as different food pantries, but the support system has been helpful as well.
"Sometimes I have those days where I get super stressed, but I can just text Jackie and get it all out," she said. "She's given me a lot of neat ideas to help with problem solving and things to do with [my son], too."
Funkhouser has been working with Healthy Families Shenandoah County for 13 years, and said the program helps to keep parents accountable and gives them something to work toward.
"We try to empower these families," she said. "I always tell them, 'We can't change our past, but we can empower our future.'"
Funkhouser also admitted that even though she wasn't a teenager when she became a parent for the first time, she could have benefited from something like Healthy Families.
"It's just a wonderful support system, and we want to make it very clear to parents that they are their child's number one teacher and role model, and they will always love them for who they are," she said. "Because of that, and because of how much I've seen these families grow, I will always believe in this program."
For more information on Healthy Families Shenandoah County, call 540-459-8558 or visit healthyfamiliesshenandoahcounty.yolasite.com.
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org