Tammy Stokvis, Public Health nurse, Meaghan Marsters, Early Years consultant, Kayla Millett, community home visitor
By Tara Wittchen
The early years of parenting come with many challenges: fatigue, lack of confidence, steep learning curves and big life changes. Some parents also face additional barriers, such as housing, food or other financial insecurities.
“Our priority is families who are facing challenges that could impact child development,” said Tammy Stokvis, a public health nurse based in Nova Scotia Health Authority’s Western Zone, which consists of Annapolis Valley, South Shore and South West Nova Scotia.
Stokvis has been with Public Health’s Early Years team since 2012.
She currently supports a client who, until recently, was facing incredibly difficult living conditions.
Just out of high school, Allison was five months pregnant and living in a tent with her boyfriend, with no clear support or path to change. A nurse working with her family doctor made the referral to Public Health.
“Early referrals in the prenatal period, which happened in this case, allow us to access community supports, advocate for the family, and offer enhanced home visiting prenatal curriculum,” Stokvis said.
During their first few visits, Stokvis felt it was important to build trust and make sure Allison felt comfortable and able to open up without fear of judgment.
“She was concerned about taking care of her unborn baby,” Stokvis said, and wanted to do the work to provide for her child, which included securing suitable and stable housing.
Right away, Stokvis was amazed by her young client’s determination, maturity and resilience. “I observed very quickly that she had little support in her life and accomplished her goals through her own drive and determination.”
There are a number of barriers that can affect early experiences, including those related to the social determinants of health.
Early Years programs such as enhanced home visiting support parents by reducing their stress and strengthening their parenting and life skills. This helps them provide a safe and secure home where their children feel loved and valued, curious and capable.
“It was clear to me that Allison would be a fantastic mom,” Stokvis said, “once financial and house stressors were dealt with.”
Allison readily shares how this support changed her life.
“If Public Health wasn’t involved, I most likely would not have left the hospital with my baby due to my living and financial situation,” she said.
Within a few visits, Stokvis connected her client with Kayla Millet, a community home visitor also based in Western Zone. Allison and Millet began meeting once a week.
“Each time we visit, I learn great amounts of what parenting should be like,” Allison said. “Kayla has taught me how being emotionally and physically there for my child helps their motor skills and brain development, and that children need compassion, patience, empathy and love to help them develop.”
It was obvious that Allison had a lot of love and good intentions for her child, Millet recalled.
Through their weekly visits, Allison was able to build her capacity and knowledge around parenting skills. She learned about breastfeeding, the importance of eye contact and talking to her child, coping with lack of sleep, and being able to take care of her child while also tending to her own needs.
“Once her child was born, she was able to apply those skills, with love and sincerity,” Millet said.
The Early Years team has a wealth of knowledge about resources available in the rural communities where they work, said Stokvis. Strong relationships between partner organizations are valued and considered a priority in the work. Those partners include The Youth Portal, Great Beginnings, food banks, mental health organizations, housing supports, the Department of Community Services, and other medical and health supports.
Allison, for instance, was connected to an outpatient dietitian who helped get her nutrition back on track and connected her to other community supports that she continues to access. “By having one more person in my corner, Tammy was able to increase my circle of support.”
Allison realized that she wasn’t alone, and that many community organizations believed in her and wanted to help.
“She also learned that self-advocacy wasn’t just encouraged but very well received,” Millet said, “and how good it felt to be empowered to ask for what she needed, be understood and supported.”
“I can honestly say that I have become a better mother because of the dedication (of) and support from Tammy and Kayla,” Allison said.
“Public Health is more than just a group of people that talk to new moms. They support struggling families to better their situations, while shaping the next generation to be well-mannered, healthy, caring and strong.”
It isn’t always possible to quantify the exact impacts Public Health supports have had on positive health outcomes for families, Stokvis said.
“However, with what we know about the determinants of health and the importance of fostering attachment and development in the early years, it becomes clear (that) family-centred support in the early years can make a significant difference.”