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Naomi Project Helps New Mothers

While many people slept-in late Friday morning to give the road crews the chance to clear away the latest accumulation of snow, Corinne D'Silva was sitting in a pediatrician's office. Her own children are 22 and 16, but her children are not the reason for the visit.

As a volunteer with the Naomi Project, D'Silva has been paired with a client from Honduras since April. It's the client's 8-month-old son who is ill. And while the child ended up having an ear infection and some chest congestion, he still had to be taken to Reston Hospital Saturday when Friday's doctor's visit was not enough.

"As soon as they were in a treatment room and there were doctors and nurses speaking Spanish, I went home," said D'Silva, a Reston resident. "The idea is to help the client be self-sufficient, so I back out of situations as soon as I can."

THE NAOMI PROJECT, started in 1995 by Clifton resident Peggy Ferguson with help from the Virginia Council of Churches, pairs high-risk expectant women and new mothers with women who serve as mentors. The clients are referred to the program from county agencies, area hospitals and local doctors. It serves clients in Alexandria and Arlington and Fairfax counties. Last year, the Naomi Project helped 55 pregnant women and new mothers and as of last week had 33 clients.

"In 2002, our youngest client was 14 and our oldest was 39," Ferguson said. "Anybody who is a health-care provider and feels a patient is at risk with the pregnancy or parenting can refer the patient to us."

The organization is staffed by volunteers who work out of their homes and Ferguson keeps the program running with a budget of less than $5,000, all from donations. Any extra funding is spent on stocking a storage closet, which one of the volunteers keeps in her basement, with strollers, cribs and other "big-ticket" items said Ferguson.

"It's mentoring, it's friendship," said Ferguson, who has a background as a public-health nurse. "We have broad goals: to promote a healthy pregnancy, to foster good parenting skills and to help our clients plan productively for their futures."

To that end, the volunteers can be called on to help a client, ranging from learning bus routes, organizing medical records, shopping through the Women, Infants and Children Food Program, also known as WIC, driving mother and baby to doctor's appointments, navigating the maze of human services or just being a friend.

"I first met my client when she was pregnant. One of the first things I did was I got her an eye exam because her social worker wrote in her report that she didn't think my client could read the bus schedule. The social worker was right, she couldn't read the schedule because her eyes were so bad," D'Silva said. "Through the Lions Club, I helped arrange for her to get a free eye exam and helped her find glasses she could afford."

In addition, D'Silva has helped her client get a referral to Reston Interfaith's food closet and has taken her to The Closet in Herndon, which provided support to the Naomi Project.

"It's very fulfilling," said D'Silva, who is a first-time volunteer. "It's nice to see I can help someone. It doesn't take too much to help."

VOLUNTEERS are asked to make a commitment of at least a year to a client, although the Naomi Project's involvement can last up until the child is 3 years old. One volunteer is matched with one client, and each volunteer goes through an eight-hour training session before being paired with a new mother. The amount of time spent together depends on the situation.

"We don't want the client to become dependent on the volunteer," Ferguson said. "When a volunteer goes through training, we give them a broad outline and they tailor their time. Within the first six weeks, there should be weekly contact of no more than an hour."

But sometimes, no matter how much time a person volunteers, it does not seem like enough.

"Sometimes, I think of quitting," said Maria LeBerre, who became a volunteer eight years ago and now serves as one of nine area coordinators. "I'm not sure I'm doing as much as I should be, but I don't ever quit."

As a coordinator, LeBerre makes the initial home visit with the volunteer and becomes the liaison between the volunteer and Ferguson.

"During a home visit, we want to make sure the client understands what the Naomi Project is all about and that they know it is something they don't have to do. It's strictly voluntary," LeBerre said. "Sometimes they have to meet so many people, it gets confusing. Sometimes it's important to let them know we're not part of the government."

The volunteers also use the home visit as an opportunity to gauge the client's stability and need, but only through observation and not through obtrusive questions.

"We're tying to get a sense of the person's circumstances without being nosy," LeBerre said. "We want the visit to be warm and friendly. All the other stuff can come later. We want to build a trusting relationship. You want them to feel comfortable talking to you."