Ready by Five Programs Find a Way

The COVID-19 crisis brought much of Michigan to a halt at the same time organizations across Kent County were ramping up their services for families with young children. The statewide “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order came less than two months after 16 community-based organizations were awarded $7.6 million in Ready by Five Early Childhood Millage funding to provide new or expanded services. The pandemic has undoubtedly created challenges, but the vital work hasn’t stopped.

Parent educators are still promoting early learning as they play with toddlers, moms, and dads. Nurses are still providing critical information and support about babies’ health and development. Social workers are still helping parents and children develop strong bonds and providing emotional support to moms dealing with postpartum depression. Trained volunteers are still checking in on families to ask what kind of help they need. It’s all happening through video conferences and telephone calls. While these may be “virtual” home visits, the value to families is very real.

"I'm grateful you guys are doing this in the crazy time,” said one MomsBloom client. “Having an understanding ear is so helpful. The best part is seeing a face outside my family and having an opportunity to process."

MomsBloom is one of many Ready by Five service providers that has found new and different ways to reach Kent County families. The organization just started a support group that connects parents via technology – a program it may continue even after the COVID-19 crisis has ended.

Health Net of West Michigan was one of the first organizations to receive millage funding as part of the Ready by Five Outreach and Navigation Network launched late last year. Health Net helps expectant parents and parents of young children connect to early childhood services and other community resources. Instead of meeting face-to-face, the staff is all working from home, communicating with families by phone while taking strong measures to ensure client privacy.

“We are finding that the needs of families are more urgent right now,” said Maureen Kirkwood, Health Net Executive Director. “They need help with food, transportation, and housing and rent assistance. They have questions about how to receive public benefits and file for unemployment. Despite those concerns, our client services team is finding people’s level of anxiety is not as high as it was at the beginning of this crisis.”

Kirkwood is hopeful that means community members are getting the message that help is available. In addition to changing how it connects with clients, Health Net has also jumped in to provide Spanish translation of informational videos from the Kent County Health Department and assist Heart of West Michigan United Way with its 211 call center.

As administrator of the Ready by Five funds, First Steps Kent has worked closely with the Kent County administrator’s office to ensure there is no stoppage in millage payments, allowing “virtual” programming to continue through the crisis and ensuring the expanded in-person services will be ready once life returns to normal.

“It is as important as it has always been that children are healthy, developmentally on track, and ready to learn,” said Heather Boswell, COO for First Steps Kent. “We are grateful to our partners at Kent County and all the organizations that receive Ready by Five funds for their commitment to supporting our community’s youngest children during this unprecedented and difficult time.”