Hope wasn’t sure she wanted another stranger looking over her shoulder. Once a ward of the state, Hope grew up in foster families. Strangers dropping into her life was bad enough. And when they dropped out? Sometimes that was even worse.
“Once I get used to you, I get used to you,” said Hope, 25, who last year was living in a District homeless shelter and expecting a child. “So when you leave, it’s kind of hard for me. I’m used to people coming in and out of my life. Once I get used to you being here, I expect you to stay here.”
Could Abayea Pelt promise to be there for Hope, for her partner, Kirk, for their baby, Wynter Rose?
Abayea is the family case-management coordinator for Community of Hope’s Healthy Start program. Funded by the Bainum Family Foundation and the District’s Department of Health, Healthy Start was launched in February to provide prenatal and postnatal support for struggling D.C. residents facing what is both the most natural thing in the world and one of the hardest: having a baby.
Community of Hope, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, offers prenatal services at its Conway Health and Resource Center in Southwest and its Family Health and Birth Center in Northeast. Once the baby is born — and for at least the first six months after that — Healthy Start counselors such as Abayea make weekly home visits. They’ll keep in touch with participating families for three years.
Home visits cover basic baby care, the importance of immunizations, social and emotional development, and brain development.
“We talk about the importance of holding your baby, that it’s impossible to spoil a baby that’s under 12 months by holding them too much,” Abayea said.
For many new moms and dads, the Healthy Start program is a way to learn parenting skills they may not have been exposed to when they were little. It can help kindle the spark of empathy that may have been missing in their own childhoods.
“I think the vast majority of the parents we’re working with, even if they didn’t have great experiences growing up, they want something better for themselves and for their families,” Abayea said.
The moms face challenges. Many, like Hope, have struggled with housing instability.
“A lot of our moms, especially homeless moms, tend to be pretty isolated, which can lead to depression and intensifying postpartum depression,” Abayea said. And what’s hard on the mom can be hard on the child.
Hope is fortunate. She and Kirk are building a life together. Together, they found an apartment in Northeast. The city’s rapid rehousing program helps with the rent. Hope works full-time at a Taco Bell in Prince George’s County while Kirk stays home with the star of the show, Wynter Rose.
“You’re going to have problems regardless,” Kirk, 27, said of the day-to-day struggles of being a new parent. “Getting through those problems, and still being there, is what makes you a better parent. The baby knows their parent is there and has got their back.”
At the beginning, Hope was skeptical about Healthy Start. She has been involved in so many well-meaning efforts. But she came to look forward to Abayea’s Tuesday night visits.
“We talk about the baby,” Hope said. “We also talk about ourselves, too, our mind frame. If I’m depressed or down, we’re not going to get nowhere.”
Hope added, with a laugh: “I got mad when she told me it was going to be every two weeks now. She’s been here ever since Rose was born. I like that bond.”
When I visited Wynter Rose — her name celebrates her January birthday — the 10-month-old was wearing a polka-dot onesie and an expression that revealed curiosity. She crawled across the carpeted floor like a pro. She stood, then took a few tentative steps before dropping on her diapered bottom.
Did that count as walking? We decided it did and all broke into applause. This baby wants to go places.
I asked Abayea how Community of Hope will measure the success of Healthy Start.
“If we can move that mom from being standoffish with the baby and not wanting to hold the baby to bonding and cuddling, if they make a decision to breast-feed, if they turn away from parenting models they were used to before and turn to things that are positive and nurturing — those are things that we consider successes,” she said.
You can help achieve these successes. Your tax-deductible gift to Community of Hope will fund programs that aid homeless families in the District. To give online, visit posthelpinghand.com. To donate by mail, make a check payable to “Community of Hope” and mail it to: Community of Hope, Attn: Helping Hand, 4 Atlantic St. SW, Washington, D.C., 20032.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.