A visiting nurse with the Southeast Utah Health Department’s “Parents as Teachers” program leaves a support package for a family, as in-person visits have been suspended due to COVID-19. [Courtesy of the Southeast Utah Health Department]

Just before Easter, some nurses crept onto the porches of families in Carbon, Emery and Grand counties and left, not candy or eggs, but packages of toys, books and games for young children. These nurses are part of a new program from the Southeast Utah Health Department which provides extra support to some parents in the region with children from newborns to five-year-olds.

“Parents as Teachers” is a national program that has been around for over 40 years but is brand-new to SEUHD.

Gwen Anderson is the coordinator of the program at the health department. She says that the state health department suggested beginning the program in the tri-county area overseen by the health department after they identified a need for greater support for families who may be struggling with poverty or substance abuse.

“I’m so excited about it,” said Anderson to the Moab Sun News. “I love home visits, I love working with families but the thing I like best is that this program really recognizes that parents are the experts on their own children and we are there to support them.”

Families within the program work with specially trained nurses to create healthy, happy families through learning fun and educational games, having additional reading material and books provided to children and being connected to additional support from other community agencies and services.

“We want to ensure wrap-around, quality services for our families,” said Anderson, “so families, if they want help completing their education or finding a job or better housing we can connect them to people who can help because we know that that will help the children as well.”

“It’s a whole-family approach,” she said. The program is provided free of charge and supported by grant funding.

Nurses work with the same families, staying in touch and making twice-monthly home visits. To best meet everyone’s needs, the nurses “stay flexible” and figure out what works best for each family, Anderson said.

While the program’s visiting nurses usually travel to visit families, they are adjusting the program to physical distancing recommendations in place to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“We were a bit nervous, because our families had just joined the program in October,” said Anderson.

She said that the trust and emotional bond between nurses and families is important to the success of the program, and staff wondered if the lack of home visits would interfere. Technology, however, has been an asset.

“The national organization has allowed for virtual visits, so we can Zoom or FaceTime or even just connect with families through a phone call,” said Anderson.

“It’s great for our nurses to be connected to the parents and to the kiddos,” she said.

Nurses have also been preparing packages to support families to drop off at homes, like the Easter packages.

The participating families are also, like many in the area, dealing with the economic fallout from business closures and reduced tourism due to the coronavirus.

“There are so many complicated issues families have to deal with on top of already difficult circumstances,” Anderson said, reporting that the program has helped with issues as diverse as filing taxes, understanding new unemployment policies and securing transportation.

Despite the current challenges, Anderson is enthusiastic about the future of the program.

“Our goal is to expand and connect with more families every year,” she said.

“Currently we can serve 15 families in Grand County, 40 families in Carbon County and 15 to 20 families in Emery County,” said Anderson, who noted that each family may have multiple children who are cared for within the program.

Nurses from the Carbon and Emery offices are currently traveling to support families in Grand County, but Anderson reports that SEUHD is currently looking to hire a Registered Nurse to dedicate to the Moab area.

A new health department program supports local parents and children