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Skills for a Better Life

Program helps families raise healthy children, nurturing mind and body.

Alexandria mother Cindy Fuentes has four children, Destiny, 4, Kimberli 1, and twins, Sara and Ashlee, 3 months.

When she has questions, she turns to a local program, Healthy Families.

"It's really a great program. The kids are always glad to see Evelyn, our caseworker,” Fuentes said. “When I had my first child, Evelyn brought all kinds of brochures to the house to help us. Whenever I've had questions she was always there to help.”

Last year Healthy Families served 245 families with 228 children. "The reason there were fewer children than families is because our services begin when the mother is pregnant," Freeman said.

In 1993 Alexandria became one of the first local governments to establish a "Healthy Families" organization.

An innovative element of Northern Virginia Family Services home-visitation program, Healthy Families provides support and guidance to mothers and fathers who want to learn the skills they need to ensure positive outcomes for their children.

On Nov. 28, 11 families, including Fuentes, graduated from the program.

They were joined at the Alexandria Hilton Hotel by more than 200 other parents, children and staff from both Healthy Families and the Alexandria-based National Association of Children's Hospitals and Related Institutions for a holiday party sponsored by the Hilton and NACHRI. The celebration marked the event's ninth year.

"We're a national organization and for the most part our focus is outward. But, we wanted to also focus on an Alexandria activity,” said Lawrence A. McAndrews, president and CEO of NACHRI. “We decided to sponsor this party nine years ago. We are in the same field as Northern Virginia Family Services, trying to improve the lives of children

The program began in 1993 under the administration of then Alexandria mayor and now state Sen. Patricia Ticer (D-30). There are now more than 30 programs throughout the state according to Carol Freeman, program manager of Northern Virginia Family Services, a regional non-profit organization.

"Alexandria decided to sponsor this program when I was mayor. At that time there were very few such programs nationwide," Ticer said. "You can really see the difference in the children. This whole thing was started to prevent child abuse. The major goal is to develop healthy children.”

Freeman explained the program’s mission: "This is a voluntary home-visiting program to promote positive parenting which, hopefully, promotes positive results for children,” Freeman said. “It commences when the mother is pregnant and concludes when the child enters kindergarten at five years old.”

Freeman added that they work with first time parents and continue with them until their oldest child turns five.

All children in Monday's night's 11 graduating families have reached age five. Their parents have acquired the basic knowledge and skills of good parenting on both the emotional and social levels.

Sonja Weisel-Jones, assistant director of communications for the association said that new parents often come into the program with various risk factors.

"Overburdened new parents often struggle with a variety of risks, including childhood histories of abuse and neglect,” Weisel-Jones said. “Healthy Families works to overcome that."

Families in the program are provided a mentor to guide the family through the developmental process. Fathers also learn to participate in child-rearing.

The final product was evident in families at event.

"When you first start in the program the child is a little hesitant. But, when the family assistant comes into the home she really helps the parents and that helps the child," said Debra Morris of Alexandria as she held her 18-month-old grandson, Mario, on her lap.

"I love this program. It has really helped me," said LaKisha Morris, Mario’s mother. "I also have another little girl who is 2 month old but, she's still in the hospital because she was born prematurely."

Mirna Delgado, also of Alexandria, has two children benefiting from Healthy Families, Christopher 4, and Bryan, 2.

"When I have questions about their development I can turn to my case worker and she assures me everything is fine," Delgado said. "She comes in every two weeks and works with the kids. They really love her. And, I love the program.”

In addition to a grant from the city each year, funding comes from the state which also receives some federal funds. According to Freeman, donations from foundations, businesses and private donors also provide money for the program. The 2004 budget was approximately $760,000 or a little over $3,100 per family.

"Last year we received our first grant from The Women's Giving Circle of Alexandria. They had decided that their focus was going to be parent/child relationships,” Freeman said. “We are working to make parents the best they can be for their children.”

Alexandria Councilman Rob Krupicka called the initiative the best investment the city makes every year.

“This event is a great way to kick off the holiday season," Krupicka said. "All these parents want so badly is to give their kids a better life. Healthy Families helps them to accomplish that.”