Building Foundations with Pittsburgh Families & Mothers

Becoming a mother or a father for the first time can be one of the most significant physical and psychological changes anyone can experience. So much so that it typically causes an identity shift. Being almost eight months pregnant, I can relate. What I’m embarking on is monumental and the toughest challenge of my life yet. But when I think about this child and how I’ll cope with such a huge change to my life, my anxieties are relatively benign. Whlle I'm concerned about her health and well-being since I can control only so much, I've recently shifted to questions focused more on who she’ll become. Things like if she’ll prefer dinosaurs over dolls, if she’ll be as captivated by nature and wildlife as me, or when I’ll begin seeing parts of myself in her personality. These are not sweeping issues, and I can easily put them aside and patiently wait until time reveals those answers. But the point in my mentioning these relatively inconsequential things is that they are allowed to exist because my basic needs are being met. I’m privileged to be in a secure and stable position in my life where there’s room to worry about things that reside in the distant future. But for the low-income families and single mothers we serve in Family Foundations, there are much larger circumstances that aren’t as easy to ignore. Living in poverty creates issues that do impact everyday life. Issues like lack of stable housing, insufficient access to healthy food, financial insecurity, low family support, and the lack of supportive resources from the neighborhoods that shaped their own childhoods.

To compare, let’s take a pregnant woman who’s dealing with the anxieties and barriers that come with also living in poverty. How is she supposed to plan for or dream of her child’s future, let alone think critically about that child’s early development, when she’s pooling all her energy into resolving circumstances like eviction or food insecurity? Forty percent of Americans are one paycheck away from poverty, and a lot can happen in the nine months a child is in the womb, especially when there’s already a baseline struggle to make ends meet. Jobs can be lost, relationships can easily change. One substantial financial blow can throw everything off-kilter. I’ve been told throughout my pregnancy to avoid stress, but how could a mother do that who is on the verge of becoming homeless? The health of the household declines, along with the physical and mental health of the mother and child. Instead of it being a joyous time, these large stressors turn the prospects of pregnancy into something that’s overwhelming, frightening, and possibly full of resent. It’s not a healthy foundation for the beginning of a life.

This is where Family Foundations (FF) comes in. Family Foundations Early Head Start was created by the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Child Development as part of their Early Head Start grant. Community Human Services (CHS) still maintains this partnership with our two locations. One office in 2525 Liberty serves the Hill District, the Strip District, Bloomfield, Polish Hill, and Lawrenceville, and our second office across the Allegheny River serves the North Side District. Family Foundations services are also available in Clairton, the East End, Sto-Rox, and Turtle Creek through the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Child Development. These locations across Pittsburgh serve low-income families and single mothers with children from birth to age three and provide services for health and wellness education, early literacy development, support on mental health issues, and drug and alcohol counseling. Staff are experts in child and family development and serve as teachers and counselors during their home visits with clients. 

But staff are more than suppliers of services. A staff member can spend the entire three years with the same family, which provides a stable, consistent person to supply a child with early child development and family support services. This is essential because one of the side-effects of low-income often is uncertainty in one’s living situations. “Our Family Foundations Home Visitors have an amazing impact on children and their families,” explains Colin McWhertor, Chief Service Officer at CHS. “From teaching innovative and interactive styles of play to educating on child development, they are supporting families as they grow.” Between our two office locations, staff made 1,265 home visits, gave 41 pregnant women access to prenatal care, had 40 fathers actively participate in services, provided 41 children with free dental services, and transitioned 16 children to Head Start programs—all within last fiscal year, beginning July 1, 2018 and ending June 30, 2019.

Spending time with parents is just as important as spending time with their children, as foundations are sustained through an actively supportive parental unit. This past year, our Family Foundations programs created an innovative parent support group called Parent Cafe. This group meets once a month to focus on their mental health through art and self-care activities. It’s a kids-free morning for parents, with the program providing childcare stipends to easily cover the cost of a babysitter. These meetings give parents a chance to participate in play, which has shown to not only help relieve stress, but also create camaraderie amongst parents of different backgrounds. “When the parents engaged in play they became one,” says Program Coordinator of our Hill District office, Delilah Miller. “Their cultural differences were an asset to each other and no longer a barrier.” Parent Cafe has been embraced by parents so much that it’s expanded to other Family Foundation locations around Allegheny County—proof that CHS is constantly creating innovative programming to better serve our clients.

To support the entire family unit, Family Foundations also hosts regular events for clients to enjoy as families, such as summer trips to the Pittsburgh Zoo, picnics, and Mother’s Day celebrations. Recently, staff organized a holiday event called Winter Wonderland that included several different stations for families to have fun in, such as cookie decorating, ornament crafting, a photo booth, and sensory play for younger children using different materials representing snow. The program is also planning to create a mobile playground, and while a playground may seem like a no brainer for a program that serves children, the significance of this new project is huge. As more greenspaces and parks are depleted of their funding or traded for expanding infrastructure, living within easy distance to a safe public playground isn't always an available resource for our clients. Playgrounds and parks provide a space for children to burn off energy, and more importantly, access play. Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination and dexterityPlay is also vital in developing their physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Without having a space or access to play, children miss out on a necessary part of their brain development and ability to engage with the world around them at an early age. Having a mobile playground readily available for events at our Liberty location provides a great way to make these family gatherings more robust and interactive, which is essential for successful early child development. As the City of Pittsburgh changes around us, so must our programming. Creating a mobile playground to better meet the needs of our clients is a testament to how CHS services strive to remain relevant, knowing that no matter what, we must continue providing quality services to support the foundations of the families we serve.

If you have a client or know someone who would benefit from Family Foundations enrollment, please call 412.246.1660 to be connected to the right location. Our North Side location serves neighborhoods in the North Side, while our Strip District location includes the Hill District, the Strip District, Bloomfield, Polish Hill, and Lawrenceville.


Sarah Nesbella

CHS Development Specialist


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