A hand for moms, a strong start for kids

Kirrena Gallagher was a pregnant teenager who, in her own words, had “no prior experience’’ with the responsibilities of motherhood.

Gallagher was connected to a home visit program in Clarke County that taught her parenting skills and how to help her child develop so he could be ready for school.

Today, her son Malachi is 9 years old and “excelling’’ in the third grade, Gallagher says. And she is doing home visits herself, teaching new moms the kinds of skills she learned.

Gallagher was part of a news conference Monday announcing that Georgia is expanding services for expectant mothers and children up to age 5.

Great Start Georgia will operate a hotline and website to refer families to resources in their communities. The goal is to help ensure young children’s health, development and safety.

And the program will continue home visit programs for families in seven counties in the state.

Education and knowledge are “key to success in life,’’ said Georgia’s first lady, Sandra Deal, at the news conference at the state Capitol. “We want every parent to know how to rear a child properly.’’

Through home visits, nurses, social workers, or other trained experts meet families, evaluate their circumstances and connect them to assistance that can make a difference in a child’s health.

Kirrena Gallagher is an example of how connecting a pregnant teen with services can make a big difference in her child’s development, said Pat Willis, executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children, an advocacy group.

The Great Start Georgia program is funded through $5 million in federal funds, awarded to states to develop home visitation programs through the Affordable Care Act.

Marilyn Stephenson, of the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, told GHN on Monday that home visits, among other things, help families develop self-sufficiency; prevent child abuse and neglect; improve school readiness; and promote the health of mother and child.

The state is chipping in with another $1 million to fund the Great Start services.

Children’s health experts emphasize the importance of the first five years in how a person develops for life.

Dr. Jack Shonkoff, a pediatrician and Harvard researcher, notes how stressors such as poverty, violence, malnutrition, abuse and neglect damage a child’s brain when it is at its most flexible or pliable state –- in the earliest months and years of life.

When parents know how to aid learning, provide good nutrition and create an environment that promotes health and stimulates the mind, they can build a strong foundation for a child’s brain development, Shonkoff says.

Great Start Georgia will be available to all kids in the state with a website, www.greatstartgeorgia.org, and a toll-free line at 1-855-707-8277.

The home visits will continue in the seven counties of Clarke, Crisp, DeKalb, Glynn, Houston, Muscogee and Whitfield, plus some adjoining counties.

The long-term goal is to expand to other communities, said Katie Jo Ballard, executive director of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, which is sponsoring the new program.

The Department of Public Health will provide a centralized intake service along with the existing Children 1st program, which identifies “at-risk’’ children and links them to services.

“Children are Georgia’s most precious resource,’’ said Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, commissioner of the state Department of Public Health. The collaboration can help link every child “to the services and programs they need,’’ she said.