University Park, IL,
17:09 PM

Developing Families Through Early Head Start at Governors State

Venturing into the Family Development Center (FDC) at Governors State University (GSU) on a cold day, you’re transported to summers in the prairies: glass, skylit atriums create the illusion of the children playing outside and the hallways are alive with lush vegetation and laughter.

To Shamieka Jefferson, mother of two children one of whom is enrolled in FDC programs, the work done at the center is as incredible as the facility itself.

“If I had to sum up my experience at GSU’s Family Development Center into one word, it would be ‘inspiring’ or ‘motivational,’” she said.

The FDC is respected in the GSU community for providing high-quality child care, preschool, and home visiting programs that draw extensively on the expertise of university faculty and staff in Early Childhood Education, Nursing, Communications Disorders (speech and hearing), Psychology and Counseling.

But the programs and benefits of the FDC aren’t confined to the ultramodern building, and instead reach into the homes of the community as well. One program, Early Head Start (EHS), provides home visits to underserved and underrepresented expectant mothers and children under the age of three, and serves as a guaranteed pathway to an FDC preschool classroom if the mother enrolls by her second trimester.

Funded by the federal government, EHS came to Governors State in 2010 and since 2014 has assisted in the birth of more than 48 babies.

For Erin Soto, Executive Director of the FDC, the EHS mission is simple: assist families in poverty to assure their children are ready for school and the parents are confident in helping their children get there.

President Elaine P. Maimon sees the services at the FDC as not just preparing children for school, but “helping the children understand they are 100 percent college bound.”

Jefferson said the visits did, in fact, change her life, from the moment she walked into the center in December of 2018.

“I walked into the doors literally a day after I found out I was pregnant with my second child, completely lost and broken in just about every aspect of my life. The staff was extremely warm and gentle with my situation and I was made to feel comfortable and relaxed. They gave me as many resources as they could to help me at the time,” she said.

Expectant mothers are encouraged to contact the center early in their pregnancy to begin monthly home visits. The visits are custom built to the family’s situation and ensure the mother’s primary needs are met, such as assisting the mother in acquiring health insurance.

After assessing the family’s needs, the FDC gets to work with connecting them with resources, agencies, and services such as The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) or the mental health services available at GSU. If transportation to receive community services is an issue, the FDC has an agency van to take the family to appointments.

Families also have access to the FDC resources, including an area specialist in family services, education, mental health, health services and nutrition, and a nurse consultant. To Soto these resources are crucial to the child’s ultimate ability to learn.

“Part of being ready for school is being healthy,” she said.

Sometimes baby showers are held, offering gifts and gems of wisdom from pediatric experts and Early Childhood Education students.

After the child is born, home visitors bring diapers and formula to the post-partum visit. Twice a week, they meet with the families and eventually support them in transitioning to center based programs or into a permanent home-based service.

Claudia Nguyen, FDC Health Services Director, said the period immediately following birth can be stressful for new moms. “They may not have remembered to ask their nurses questions after having the baby about typical care for the child and the mother. But they have access to us once they are home,” said Nguyen.

Supporting mothers through the unexpected is what brought Jefferson back to the program.

“I took a break from my visits for a few months, and it showed. But one day, I made contact and it was as if I had never left.’’

After post-delivery visits, children enroll in FDC center-based option or continue with home-based visits.

Home-based services after the initial six weeks include flexible, weekly 90 minute sessions to teach parents how to work with their children in a parents-as-teacher curriculum, according to Jillian Roth, FDC Family Services Director.

“Parents are nature’s first teacher for the children,” she said.

They talk with the parents about what progress they want to see for their child and break down the steps of their plans so they can assess the child’s development. Toys are left with the families after every visit so parents can continue to work with their children when they leave.

For some families, it takes a mixture of the services to advance the EHS mission to prepare children for school.

Tara Hanley and her two boys have been a part of the Family Development center since 2014. A home visitor provided weekly sessions to Hanley’s oldest son starting after he turned 2 years old. 

“I loved the individual focus on making sure he was learning and meeting his milestones. We also visited the center once a month for play group, to interact with other parents and children around his age,” she said.

When Hanley became pregnant with her second son, Jaxon, she received additional home visits during the pregnancy and continued them until Jaxon took his guaranteed spot at the FDC.

Once the toddler started in the program, the FDC helped find therapeutic resources for him including one-to-one services at the center to improve his speech.

Hanley is grateful the home visitors dug a little deeper to make sure her boys were set up for success.

“I believe the EHS program helped my children build a strong fundamental foundation for not only learning but social skills as well. Jaxon is now about to graduate from pre-k with the kindergarten skills he will need such as writing his name, adding and sight words. I would recommend this program to everyone because they truly love and care for our children,” she said.

Outside of developmental screenings, the families are encouraged to take part in play date socializations, which feature free trips to Frankfort Children’s Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, splash pads, and more. Roth notes this is important for the entire family.

“It’s a chance for the parents to talk to other parents about the development of their children. They really help each other out,” she said.

Jefferson reflects on how the FDC has embraced her journey.

“It just makes me feel great that my family is supported by GSU and continuing to motivate me through school and being a single mother. I would highly recommend their support to anyone in need. To this very day, they are still making a huge impact on the lives of my children and I,” she said.

Apply online today for Early Head Start, or call 708.235.7347 to make an appointment. Space is limited.