Helping our youngest patients emerge from the pandemic

July 14, 2021

For first-time mother Maria Guerra, watching her 9-month-old daughter, Amaia, adjust from a life that began during the COVID-19 pandemic to one that is now starting to come out on the other side has been a unique experience.

“My daughter was born during COVID, so this has been a transition for her,” Guerra said. “She has gone from seeing people on Zoom or in masks to now being out and about and seeing people without masks, which I can tell makes her a little nervous.”

One of the constants throughout Amaia’s life has been Susana Gomez, a home visitor in Venice Family Clinic’s Children First Early Head Start program. Gomez hadn’t had the chance to visit Amaia until last month, when the program resumed in-person home visits. Until then, Amaia had known Gomez mostly through video visits.

“While Amaia had seen me at our monthly play group, she had never seen me in person inside her house,” Gomez said. “When I walked in that first time, she was just waking up from a nap. When she saw me, her eyes lit up and she gave me a big smile. It was like ‘wow’ for both of us. That smile made all the difference and created a better connection between me and her family.”

These kinds of connections are what our program’s families and staff have been looking forward to making for the last year.

“It’s critical for us to be back delivering our services in person,” said Stacey Scarborough, Early Head Start director. “This is not an age meant for digital interactions.”

Much-needed care

Venice Family Clinic’s comprehensive child development program is for pregnant mothers and families with children from birth to 3 years old. The federally funded program, which currently serves 376 low-income families on the Westside of Los Angeles, Inglewood and the South Bay, promotes the health and well-being of young children and their families by helping parents learn about their child’s needs and strengthening the bond between parent and child.

Over the course of the past 15 months, we continued to support our program’s families – many of which rely on wages from hard-hit industries – while they dealt with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. We also continued to offer childcare services; reopened our Early Head Start centers in June 2020; transitioned home visits to virtual ones; and held online educational trainings and support groups for parents.

Our home visitors also delivered food to families’ homes, as well as basic supplies like masks, soap, diapers and wipes, and things for the kids like crayons, paints and books. The Clinic’s dietician provided low-cost, easy recipes to go along with the produce bags, too.

“Any money our families had went toward rent, so they didn’t have money to buy these supplies, and it gave kids learning materials,” Scarborough said. “The deliveries gave our families the opportunity to see in person the home visitor they talk to every week, and it gave us a little bit of information about what’s going on in their homes, so we could help even more.” 

Sometimes these visits led to life-changing experiences. One mother, who had joined the program during the pandemic, asked to meet at a street corner to receive her family’s bag of produce. When our home visitor asked why, she discovered that the family with four small children had been living in the back of a mechanic’s shop – something that wasn’t obvious during the virtual home visits. We referred this family to our resource case management team to find them housing.

Family support

Recently, the Clinic’s chief medical officer held an online class on the implications of the state’s reopening that proved popular among parents. 

“A lot of families are stuck mentally with staying at home and are afraid to send their kids back to school,” Scarborough said. “We told them that it’s time to go back and that it’s safe, and reminded them that their children need social interaction and to practice their fine motor skills. Kindergarten is pretty academic now, so if children don’t have these foundations, they’ll be behind from the start.”  

To further support our Early Head Start families, we held COVID-19 vaccine clinics for parents and any children over age 12 in their households, as well as lab clinics to screen children for lead and anemia, at our Early Head Start centers. The program’s older children will be transitioning to preschool soon, so the Clinic wants to make sure they get caught up on their health screenings before then. 

An emotional time

While we have done all we could safely do during the pandemic to support our families, the developmental stages from ages 0-3 are such pivotal moments that it hasn’t been easy for these little ones.

At the beginning of the pandemic, one child would get so angry hearing her home visitor’s voice but not being able to see her in person that we referred the child to an infant mental health specialist. For children who were used to engaging with other kids at our Early Head Start centers, not having that regular peer interaction meant they couldn’t practice their speech skills as much, which has led to a higher number of speech therapy referrals than usual. And when we were able to reopen those centers, sometimes children would act out. One child wouldn’t come down from the top of the playground structure, refusing to leave until we could get their parent on the phone.

“There are such big emotions to closing and reopening,” Scarborough said. 

Those emotions include excitement and joy for many of our children and families, too. For home visitor Gomez, some children have been so happy to see her that getting through lesson plans has been nearly impossible. 

“When I walked into my first home visits, children were jumping everywhere. They couldn’t believe that we were going from Zoom to in-person,” Gomez said. “One child just wanted to show me all her toys and brought out every single one. I quickly realized that for the first visits, we would need to just follow the child’s lead.”

Parents also have shown a renewed interest now that their home visitors are back in their homes, asking a lot of questions to ensure they are doing what they need to be for the sake of their children’s development.

“A lot of parents have shared with me that they were overwhelmed having to do Zoom with their small children,” Gomez said. “They’re just as excited as their kids are to have home visits again.”

An eye toward the future

Gomez nurtured her connection with Guerra and Amaia during the pandemic through video visits and play groups. She also regularly dropped off fresh produce from the Clinic’s free food markets and baby supplies. Because of the care she showed, Guerra said she and her daughter felt comfortable having Gomez in their home.

“I’m grateful for the support Susana gave me during the pandemic,” Guerra said. “I like having someone I can trust to talk to about my baby’s education, especially as a first-time mom. I’ve found all the tips and strategies Susana has given my husband and me to be useful, and we use them throughout the week. I’m excited for more home visits.”

For Gomez, returning to in-person visits has been an emotional experience as well.

“I had three family members pass away from COVID-19, so at first I felt nervous going back. But once I got the vaccine, I felt more comfortable with the idea,” she said. “And I knew that in person I would be able to see the whole picture of how parents and children were engaging. Now that we’ve restarted home visits, I’m feeling more in tune and connected with the families than before.

“I missed my Early Head Start families. This is what I love to do. It’s time to go back.”