Focusing on families during uncertain times

“Being alongside families who are struggling right now is both amazing and challenging.”

Early childhood education programs evolve to maintain connections

The family is stretched at its seams, unsure what will come next, or how they will recover. Both parents have health risks, and are unable to venture outside their home to pick up basic necessities. The life of their 9-month old hangs in the balance. These are the stakes, and this is the importance of the family’s parent educator—a young woman who makes the decision to go above and beyond her duty to pick up their WIC voucher and complete a grocery run, dropping food and medicine at their doorstep.

“She’s such a blessing. We don’t know what we would be doing without her. We don’t know if our baby would be eating without her.”

That was the message from the family, participants in programming by Start at Zero, an early childhood education service that partners with parents and caregivers to promote healthy early childhood development.

Being alongside families who are struggling right now is both amazing and challenging,” said Angela DeWilde, Executive Director for Start at Zero. “It tests the depth of your compassion, and while it’s fulfilling, it’s also really draining.”

Like many human services organizations, Start at Zero is facing an altered landscape almost every day, attempting to find stability so they can continue to provide assistance to their families.

“Our number one focus is family support, which means that my number one focus is family support for my staff, making sure they have as much capacity as they possibly can,” Angela said.

During the COVID-19 health crisis, Start at Zero turned its attention to supporting the wellbeing of its clients in unique ways: wellness check-ups, a café setting for parents, child screenings and more—all virtually. The organization has also begun meeting their families using FaceTime, Whatsapp, Zoom, and other types of video platforms.

“As hard as the situation is, we are forced to be innovative, so that’s kind of exciting,” Angela said.

All but one of the 12 Start at Zero staff members are parents, so they are able to understand and connect with the families they serve. The organization works closely with United Way of Greater Kansas City and Success by 6 at the Olive Center, located inside the Choice Neighborhood. The challenge faced by each of these families right now is unique.

For example, many of the families speak languages other than English, so an interpreter is required. That brings up yet another potential roadblock during a time when the world already has so many in place, especially for families living in poverty.

But the staff is proving its resilience daily, finding new ways to operate. On this morning, Angela received a photo via text from an interpreter showing a 3-way video call between a parent educator, an interpreter and a family.  “I got this text saying, ‘We did it! We did it!’ so that was exciting,” Angela said. “We’re trying the best we can. We’ll try anything. We don’t limit our parents. Whatever tool they have, we will use, and we will make it work.”

Going to great lengths

The goal of Start at Zero and services like it is to provide a friendly face and guidance for parents who are struggling through the uncertainty of the pandemic. Although some families have dropped off from their usual services because they are either too busy or stressed to make time for it, Start at Zero is going to great lengths to fit those needs.

Thanks to the shift to virtual appointments, not only have visits been able to continue, recruitment has actually picked up since moving to a virtual-only setting.

“New families who are starting the relationship virtually with their parent educator. That has never happened for us in the past, but it’s going really well,” Angela said.

Despite the circumstances, the mission remains the same.

“A lot of what we did before COVID-19 and especially what we’re doing right now is resource connections to families to support their wellbeing,” Angela said. “Families who were struggling before are still facing those challenges, and they have been magnified now.”

Angela said she’s thankful there are a lot of resources in the community right now, but families aren’t always connected to them. Start at Zero often serves as the connector to make sure they have what they need in their homes.

“Every visit used to be structured. Now, the visit needs to include whatever that family needs right now,” Angela said. “We can meet you where you are right now. Everything else is a bonus.”