Parenting Resources and Birth Options (Partnership piece with the McElroy House)

Donations at Open Arms. Photos by Johnny Sain for ABOUT the RIver Valley magazine.

Donations at Open Arms. Photos by Johnny Sain for ABOUT the River Valley magazine.

This story originally ran in the May issue of ABOUT the River Valley magazine in partnership with the Boiled Down Juice and McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action. 

In many ways becoming a new parent (or even becoming a parent for the third, fourth, or fifth time) can feel like navigating a complicated maze. The challenges are even greater for families experiencing financial difficulties while also trying to navigate the world of both pre and post natal care.

I work with an organization called the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action, a community-based group primarily serving Pope and Yell Counties. Part of our work centers around media projects with the central goal of researching resources in the area and helping connect people with information they can use to strengthen their lives.

Thankfully the region is home to multiple organizations that help parents and caregivers access the tools they need to parent with confidence. Based on suggestions from community members and readers, we spoke with a handful of these local organizations (both old and new) and put together this short piece exploring a few such resources. You may not be a caregiver yourself, but chances are you know or work with those who are. We hope this piece will help spread the word about how community members can help families. After all, supporting strong families means supporting strong communities. This is by no means an exhaustive list of resources and we hope that you’ll help us grow the list by emailing us at the address listed at the end of the article and let us know about other organizations in the area.

One of the most important things a mother needs during pregnancy is nutrition and access to a wide array of fresh foods. Whitney Campbell is the outreach director of the Yell County WIC (Women, Infant, and Children) office located in Dardanelle. A USDA-based program, WIC serves low-income families around the state, offering resources such as pregnancy testing, prenatal care, prenatal vitamins, and vouchers for local grocery stores which ensure pregnant women and young children are eating well. “Most counties have a nutritionist on staff,” explains Campbell. The nutritionist not only helps to ensure a healthy pregnancy but can also help with nutrition after the child is born, including “serving as the breastfeeding consultant for mothers wishing to breastfeed,” says Campbell.

WIC grocery vouchers for pregnant women include high protein and fiber items such as eggs, cheese, bread, brown rice and oatmeal as well as a small stipend for fresh fruits and vegetables. In some regions, including Pope County, WIC vouchers can also be used at the area farmers markets, allowing pregnant women access to locally grown fresh foods. Once the child is born women choosing to breastfeed will continue to receive food vouchers, ensuring the mother is eating well so she can produce milk for her growing baby. These benefits last up to one year, says, Campbell, the suggested minimum amount of time a woman nurse her baby. WIC also offers double breast pumps for women returning to school or work as well as formula for formula feeding mothers and specialized formulas for formula feeding moms whose children have allergies. WIC also offers immunizations on site and a host of other services to ensure both a healthy mother and child.

Campbell says that far too often parents are afraid to ask for help. “The big thing is a lot of people think their baby has to suffer. Sometimes the mom doesn’t want to call because she doesn’t want to be a problem or doesn’t know who to ask or how to ask,” she explains. “But there are a lot people who can help,” she adds. To apply for WIC or to learn more about services, families can contact the WIC office located in their county.

There are a number of national and state-wide programs that can offer assistance for families, but sometimes families in dire situations need access to resources that only locally-based resources can provide. Located in Russellville, Open Arms is a relatively new volunteer organization focusing on helping children in crisis, whether this be low-income situations or instances where families’ are losing or having to leave a home. Open Arms works to meet these family’s immediate needs, supplying free clothing, food, even car seats. “Open Arms began after nearly a year of personally hearing of little one in need through friends,” explains founder Amanda Sanborn. “Once I had sizes, I would post the need and a bit about the situation on my Facebook page and the swap pages. Within a week, the needs were usually abundantly met,” she says.

 By October of 2012 Open Arms began operating its own facebook page, using the site as a resource to both find and give away donations. She tells the story of a grandmother who suddenly found herself parenting her two year old grandchild who came to live with her one evening with only a “half-packed diaper bag.” Within a few days, says Sanborn, “several people pulled together and gave this little angel more than she left behind. She was absolutely thrilled. We were so blessed to know that we had a part in putting smiles on her and her grandmother’s face in this time of desperation,” Sanborn explains.

 Open Arms also hosts large giveaways in Russellville, using business parking lots to help hand out donations to anyone in the region who needs them. They’ve also worked with the Russ Bus to help a homeless family find milk and a refrigerator for their three year old child. Online networking, Sanborn says, has made all the difference. “We posted the need and within minutes had a perfect answer!,” she explains. “A friend that works with a local youth organization happened to have ordered too many cartons of milk. She had forgotten that several kids would be out for conferences.” In the end the family wound up with more than enough.

 Sanborn says monetary donations are always welcome, but she also hopes the organization will serve to remind the community of the need for sustained networks of support for families in crisis. “Too many people feel that once life turns a certain way, they are doomed,” she explains. “This just isn’t so. A kind word, a simple act of kindness, or even a smile could change a life! Fear of what others might say stops many of us from reaching out. I would love to challenge every person in our community to do something nice for someone else just once a week. You will want to do it more often,” Sanborn explains. You can find Open Arms online at www.openarmsAR.com.

 Even when families aren’t experiencing an immediate crisis, supplies for a new baby can leave huge dents in an otherwise stable budget. As all parents know, things like clothes and toys are only used for such short periods of time before children outgrow them and move on to other needs. Pope County Baby Swap is an online facebook group helping connect parents who need items with parents who have items to sell or give away. “People can expect to find anything baby, child, and maternity related on the site,” explains Amy Lee, one of the administrators of the page. The only thing that is not allowed to be bought or sold is cribs,” Lee explains. “We have too many issues with recalled cribs being sold and we want to keep all our babies safe.”

 With a membership of over 4,000 people the items change on a daily basis. Scrolling through the page readers can find everything from bouncy seats to Halloween costumes to Sponge Bob-themed fish tanks. Administrators like Amy help ensure the site runs effectively, allowing community members to connect with one another even if they don’t know each other personally. I have seen many success stories where a family is in an emergency situation and the members help greatly with the needs of the family,” say Lee. “I have also seen pregnant mothers who need basically everything for their newborns and they are able to find mostly everything needed on the swap.” Participants may also request needs to the page and these needs are often quickly by those able to help. The service is free and available to anyone with internet access and can be found on facebook at “Pope County Baby Swap.”

Parenting is about so much more than just meeting material needs, and for many families, making decisions about parenting begins before labor even starts. In recent years an increasing number of women are opting to approach childbirth in new ways, including declining spinal epidurals and other drugs during childbirth. Proponents of the natural birth movement often cite studies that low-risk births are safer when fewer unnecessary medical interventions accompany the birth. Many women in the area choose a home birth and opt for prenatal care through regional midwives such as Kim Jacobs of Kim Jacob Midwife services. But not all women seeking an unmedicated labor may want to (or be able to) give birth at home.

 Choosing to have a natural birth at a hospital can be difficult, especially since labor and delivery nurses and OBGYNs are largely unaccustomed to assisting women during a planned unmedicated labor. Proponents of natural birth argue that doulas—trained birth assistants that help a woman through pregnancy and delivery— are one of the best resources for achieving an unmedicated birth in a hospital setting. Yet up until recently women in the Dardanelle and Russellville areas typically had to drive to Conway or Little Rock to work with a doula. Thanks to Nicole Fletcher, founder of Birth By Design Birth Service in Conway, Arkansas, there are now more options for women living in the central Arkansas area.

Birth by Design staff in Conway, Arkansas. Photo from facebook.

Birth by Design staff in Conway, Arkansas. Photo from facebook.

 Megan Dickerson is one of the first doulas to work with expectant mothers choosing to give birth at Saint Mary’s Hospital in Russellville. Having lived for many years in the area she returned recently and now works with Birth by Design. As a doula she strives to offer women alternatives to highly medicalized births, pointing out that “doctors are there for reason and they certainly help, but birth doesn’t always have to be treated as a medicalized event.” She strives to help families approach birth as “a part of normal life,” she explains.

 Dickerson says the hospital has been open and willing to work with families striving for unmedicated births. “It may be out of their comfort zone,” she admits, “but they have been receptive.” She also serves as a doula at the Conway hospital as well. Birth by Design also offers breastfeeding services and post postpartum support networks which will be expanding to Russellville in the coming months. This will include local breastfeeding classes as well as trainings for women wishing to become trained lactation counselors. “A lot of new moms assume it will be easy,” Dickerson says about the early days of nursing an infant. “And it’s not always.”

 Dickerson stresses that working with a doula or accessing breastfeeding support isn’t just for women with an abundance of financial resources. Doulas are always willing to work with families to create long-term payment plans, she explains. In many cases doulas are even able to work with medicaid patients, noting that in some instances mothers on medicaid aren’t always treated the same way as mothers with private insurance. “Having a doula, another professional in the room,” Dickerson explains, “ensures a mother is treated with respect.” “Too often mothers on Medicaid feel like they have to do whatever their doctors tell them,” she continues. “But they do have options.” Ultimately her work is about helping families gain access to options that work for them, she explains. “It’s about choices,” she says, “and being in confident in motherhood.” She advocates for parents having access to a wide-array of parenting options, suggesting families must decide what’s best for them, even if that may look different from the decisions others around them are making. “My choices doesn’t have to look like my best friend,” she explains.

 What are your suggestions for area parenting resources? Let us know by visiting us online at www.mcelroyhouse.wordpress.org and clicking on the “Contact us” link. Happy Mother’s Day to all the caregivers in the region! And thank you for the hard work you do!