ESPAÑOLA — Georgianne Bird-Chavez pulls up to a white and tan trailer home in Española on a Thursday afternoon, just as she has done once a week for more than a year.
She enters and greets 7½-month-old Dominic and his mom, 21-year-old Antima Peña.
“You’re sitting by yourself!” Bird-Chavez exclaims to Dominic, who is propped upright on the floor, surrounded by toys.
Bird-Chavez settles down next to Dominic and Peña, and they spend the next half hour chatting about what he’s eating (ground chicken and bananas), tummy time, teething and his motor skills.
Bird-Chavez works for the First Born Program, which provides home visits — assessments, parenting advice and educational curriculum — to first-time mothers and families in 16 of New Mexico’s 34 counties.
The program began in New Mexico in 1997 and will soon expand to San Juan and McKinley counties, which have among the highest poverty rates and the highest births to single mothers in the state. More than half of children are born to single mothers: 73.7 percent in McKinley County and 55.7 percent in San Juan County, according to 2010 statistics from the Department of Health.
Advocates say home visiting programs such as First Born can significantly reduce child abuse and neglect rates and prevent violent crime.
The expansion is expected to reach at least 200 families per year in the far northwest corner of the state, added to the 839 families the program already serves.
“Many, many of these families don’t have transportation,” said Anna Marie Garcia, First Born director for the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation, which started the program in six counties, including the two new ones. “To have someone go to their home is a blessing. It truly is. They can receive information on their level and on their turf.”
The expansion is funded through a $1.8 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to the LANL Foundation. St. Joseph Community Health is providing $150,000, and the Navajo Nation Growing in Beauty Program is giving $50,000.
The First Born program is franchised to different entities throughout the state. For instance, United Way runs the program in Santa Fe and Presbyterian Hospital runs it in Española. Many of the counties receive state funding.
The visits begin, ideally, while a first-time mom is still pregnant and can continue until the child is 3 years old. The program is based on the concept that the first three years are crucial to a child’s life.
“If you don’t take care of those first three years, it can negatively impact the rest of that kid’s life,” said Vicki Johnson, founder of the First Born program. “Or if you take care of it and nurture it, and really be sure the environment is positive and the children have normal infant growth and development, then you impact the rest of their life in a positive way.”
The program’s services are free, voluntary and offered to families regardless of health or economic status. However, many locations have a waiting list.
“We never label or stigmatize families,” Johnson said. “It could be the orthopedic surgeon’s wife or the 12-year-old who’s living from house to house. So everybody is eligible.”
In addition to new mothers, 76 percent of fathers are active in the program.
A study of the program is being conducted through a collaboration with the RAND Corporation, comparing families who have been through First Born to those who haven’t, Johnson said.
“Ultimately, we can say anything we want about how wonderful the program is,” Johnson said. “But unless we can say families are different because they’ve been in First Born, it’s not as meaningful.”
Peña said she signed up for the program when she was about six weeks pregnant after hearing about it at a doctor’s appointment. Her mom works three jobs and doesn’t live in Española, and Peña didn’t want to burden her with a lot of questions.
“I guess I felt like having that extra support,” she said.
In the beginning, she and Bird-Chavez talked about nutrition, health and labor and delivery. After Dominic was born, he had colic and got behind on some developmental benchmarks, such as crawling and putting pressure on his legs.
Bird-Chavez did some assessments and referred him to an agency, Las Cumbres, that can give him physical therapy.
Peña said the visits helped her prepare for the baby and adapt when she brought him home.
“It helped me understand his growth and what’s to come next,” she said. “Now that he’s a little bit delayed, they’re showing me little tips on how to help him with his legs.”
At the meeting last month, Bird-Chavez goes through the curriculum for a 7-month-old. She asks Peña if he’s picking things up with his fingers, recognizing himself in a mirror and doing exercises to strengthen his legs. They stop every so often to giggle with Dominic, who wears a red bib that reads “Daddy’s Superstar,” or to give him a toy.
“He seems so much more content now,” Bird-Chavez said, adding that at prior visits that he would start getting fussy. “He seems very happy being able to sit on his own, playing with his toys, so I think everything that you’re doing is helping.”