Response: December 2014 Issue

Help for New Moms in Kentucky

Help for New Moms in Kentucky
The children’s clothes closet is a big help to families; when this little girl outgrows her clothes, her mom will return them for others.

Kylie is nearly 3 months old and has a head full of hair. Kylie's mom, Tessa Hendrickson, 27, speaks shyly about her past—"I was in a bad way"—but she's hopefully about the future.

"I'm proud that I've come clean," Ms. Hendrickson said of her recovery from drug abuse. "I was tired of the life I was living."

Since Ms. Hendrickson was pregnant, she has received help and supplies from the Maternal Infant Health Outreach Worker at Henderson Settlement, United Methodist Women-related national mission institution in Frakes, Kentucky. MIHOW is a parent-to-parent intervention designed to improve health and child development for areas with limited access to health care.

Carla Broughton, 32, also has a little girl, now 15 months old. When Ms. Broughton was pregnant with Carlie Shay, her mother took her to the Henderson Settlement thrift store to buy maternity clothes. That's where Ms. Broughton first heard about MIHOW.

"I didn't have an income, and my husband hurt his back in a motorcycle accident," she said. In addition to receiving a baby car seat, diapers and infant formula when her monthly government allotment runs out, Ms. Broughton thrives on interaction with MIHOW workers and other mothers who live in this isolated part of Appalachia.

"They've been a blessing," Ms. Broughton said of the workers who have made MIHOW a household name for young mothers in the area. "I don't know what I would do without them."

MIHOW is just one of the many programs offered by Henderson Settlement, a place where low-income families in three counties of eastern Kentucky and two counties of northeast Tennessee have turned to for help since it was founded in 1925.

Throughout the year, United Methodist Women members from all over the nation send donations and travel to volunteer in Henderson Settlement's thrift store, home repair program, food pantries, greenhouses, library, youth outreach and senior center.

However, the babies and young mothers of MIHOW seem to hold a special place in the hearts of many United Methodist Women members.

"When you see the volunteers who come, that's a program they're fired up about," said Michael Feely, director of mission advancement. "They feel like they're making a direct difference and creating opportunities in the lives of the little folks who are growing up in our mountains."

Back in the 'hollers'

Every September, United Methodist Women of Scioto Ridge United Methodist Church in Hilliard, Ohio, send a mission team to Henderson Settlement. They study the website to see what is most needed, then spend months preparing the donations they will take from their church to Henderson's pocket of Appalachia.

"A lot of our women are knitters, and they knit a lot of things for the babies and also make receiving blankets," said Linda Miller, vice president of Scioto Ridge United Methodist Women.

Besides donating diapers and baby clothes, the women who travel to Henderson Settlement like to volunteer in the MIHOW offices, Ms. Miller says.

"First of all, we help sort all the clothes and other things that we bring," Ms. Miller said. "And we always have a couple of volunteers there in the room when the mothers come in with their little ones."

In a place where the nearest department store could be 20 miles away and a family may or may not have a car, baby supplies provided through Henderson Settlement are commodities. Yet the material goods are not as important as the education and interaction offered, says Frankie Blackburn, director of community outreach.

"It's not just what these girls get, it's what they learn," Ms. Blackburn said. "They really need somebody to listen to them and give them support."

MIHOW is a project of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, which has partnered with community-based organizations to help low-income pregnant women since 1982. The MIHOW model is to employ mothers from the local community as outreach workers, who then educate families about nutrition, child health and development, and parenting practices. The outreach workers also provide links to medical and social services.

Home visits are an integral part of the program, perhaps at Henderson Settlement more than other sites, according to Tonya Elkins, MIHOW's director in Nashville, Tenn. In all, Vanderbilt has 15 MIHOW sites—both rural and urban—in four states: Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Mississippi.

"In their program, women experience more isolation than in other areas of service," said Ms. Elkins of Henderson Settlement. "Some of the homes are a distance apart, back in the 'hollers,' so the trek the outreach workers have to make back and forth are much more lengthy."

The travel demand puts added strain on Henderson's already limited funding—while increasing the value of its weekly women's group and drop-by visits with baby supplies, Ms. Elkins said.

"Henderson Settlement is a place where women can come get adult conversation they don't necessarily get at home," she said. "Not many agencies are able to offer open office time for mothers to come and get something from the baby pantry if needed, form relationships with each other, and learn through interaction with the outreach worker and watching her model healthy parenting skills with the children."

Early intervention

This year Henderson Settlement celebrates 20 years of offering MIHOW to its community. Henderson's is the only faith-based program in Vanderbilt's 15 sites. Red Bird Mission, also in Kentucky, withdrew from the MIHOW program at the end of 2013.

Ms. Blackburn, who started Henderson's program, remembers the first baby she ever visited: "She's 21 now and comes to see me every now and then."

For several years, Judy Hurst coordinated MIHOW at Henderson. Recent budget cuts have resulted in staff cuts, forcing Ms. Blackburn, staff member Lisa Partin and volunteers to help run the program.

"Judy really built up the program, and she meant a lot to these girls. She listened to them," Ms. Blackburn said. "Twenty years ago, I would never have dreamed MIHOW would be so needed."

Henderson Settlement serves about 60 families through MIHOW, including 20 families who receive regular home visits. Nationally, MIHOW workers make more than 12,500 home visits per year to 1,100 families in Nashville and throughout the Southeast. The target population is pregnant women and families with young children from birth to 3 years old.

"We try to get them as early as we can, especially if it's their first baby, and teach them how their body will change," Ms. Blackburn said. "We try to get them to breastfeed. Then when the baby comes, they get a layette, including a book."

The books, says Ms. Blackburn, are especially important to her: "What better gift can you give than helping a mother to teach her child to read?"

Outcomes can be difficult to measure, says Ms. Elkins. However, a 2011 Vanderbilt study showed that 72 percent of MIHOW mothers in Appalachia read to their children daily, compared to 39 percent of MIHOW mothers in Mississippi and 21 percent in urban Tennessee.

The Vanderbilt study also showed that 93 percent of MIHOW mothers had babies with healthy birth weights. "That may seem too low compared to the general population, but the women we serve are at high risk for low birth weight because of prenatal smoking, poor nutrition, stress and other factors," Ms. Elkins said.

For Ms. Blackburn and staff, success might be best measured by experience. When a new grandmother Patty Partin, age 39, recently came to Henderson to get supplies for her oldest daughter's first baby, she brought along her younger daughters, Christine, 15, and Katelin, 9.

Ms. Partin remembers when Ms. Blackburn made the long trips to home-visit when her daughters were babies and toddlers. "We couldn't wait for her to come," Ms. Partin said. "She always brought diapers and Dora the Explorer books."

Today, Christine is an avid reader who loves the Twilight series almost as much as Dora, her mother says.

Beacon of hope

Connie Sell is a member at Brook United Methodist Church and president of the United Methodist Women Indiana Conference's Northwest District. She has volunteered many hours, sorting and folding the clothes and blankets donated to MIHOW at Henderson.

She's a believer in the ministry that helps young mothers. "When you try to put yourself in their place—not having an income and then running out of baby food at the end of the month—well, I can't imagine," Ms. Sell said.

Almost 90 years since a Methodist minister named Hiram Frakes established Henderson Settlement to educate the region's impoverished children, the poverty rate for Bell County, where Henderson is located, is 33.5 percent. The poverty rate for Kentucky is 18.6 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Last year, the unemployment rate for Bell County was 15.8 percent, compared to 8.8 percent for the state and 7.5 percent for the nation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The staff believes the unemployment rate is much higher in the more rural areas, Mr. Feely said. "Once you eliminate the metropolitan areas and measure the number of people who have quit looking for work or who have just given up, we think the percentage is actually closer to 45 or 48 percent."

Jobs are hard to find amid the curvy roads and mountain coves of Henderson's service area. Relocating or driving several miles to towns near or far isn't necessarily an option because of family connections or lack of transportation, Mr. Feely said.

Instead of cutting staff and service, Henderson Settlement leaders believe that expanding MIHOW's reach into their five-county territory could have a strong impact.

"If we could give every child that leg up, where will they be by the time they reach high school?" said Mark Lemons, Henderson Settlement executive director.

"I love these people," said Ms. Blackburn, a Frakes native, "and I want to see them keep doing better."

Henderson Settlement has always depended on United Methodist Women to not only supply the hand-knit baby hats and infant car seats. In the past two years, about 120 United Methodists, United Methodist Women groups, and churches send donations to help MIHOW meet its $36,400 budget, Ms. Feely said.

"Right now we are funded solely by donations from The United Methodist Church and its members. We do not have any grants, federal or state funding," Ms. Blackburn said. In addition to financial support, Henderson lists its needs—diapers, wipes, clothing, books, bottles, medication, car seats, baby furniture—on the website ( Gift cards enable the staff to buy supplies as needed.

Ms. Elkins says that Henderson Settlement is effective in reaching young families because of its long and trusted history.

"When I visit and talk to the people who live around Frakes, I always come away feeling that Henderson Settlement is like a beacon of hope in a community where there are so many barriers for people to become successful," Ms. Elkins said. "Henderson has a positive reputation, and they've already built relationships in places where the health department is so far away, the people aren't getting these services."

Ms. Hendrickson, mother of baby Kylie, is one of the volunteers recently enlisted by Henderson to help keep offering MIHOW to her neighbors. She is grateful for how the ministry is already shaping their lives.

"A lot of people could take this for granted, but I want you to know this program has really taught me the true meaning of 'do unto others,'" Ms. Hendrickson said. She peered down at her sleeping daughter, dressed in pink. "She's going to grow up seeing the good side of people."

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the publication of Holston Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Posted or updated: 12/1/2014 12:00:00 AM