Parenting young children can be challenging for anyone. But for parents who struggle with substance abuse, lack of work, housing insecurity, a history of abuse, or a number of other factors, being a supportive parent can be even more of a challenge.
That’s where Relief Nurseries help. Relief Nurseries offer a mix of intervention and prevention programs and services to meet the needs of children age 0 to 6 and their families. Unique to Oregon, there are 31 Relief Nursery sites around the state run by independent nonprofits, serving nearly 3,000 families a year.
“We really look at the whole family,” says Mary Ellen Glynn, executive director of the Oregon Association of Relief Nurseries. That means free programming for children from birth to preschool that’s both therapeutic and educational, weekly at-home visits for parents, supplies like diapers and clothing, and assistance navigating the system to attain affordable housing, food assistance, education, and more.
“We know there are incredible developmental milestones in the first 5 years,” says Tim Rusk, Executive Director of MountainStar Family Relief Nurseries in Central Oregon. “That includes attachment, social-emotional learning, and a foundation for learning for the rest of their lives. If parents and families are distracted by issues like domestic violence, food insecurity, or housing insecurity, they have a harder time meeting their child’s needs.”
Relief Nursery programs and services work: “After a family has been in our program for more than six months, about 85 percent of them require no further involvement with child welfare,” Glynn says. In a 2011 study by Portland State University, they found 98.5 percent of children enrolled in Relief Nurseries between 2008-2010 avoided foster care and were able to live safely with their families.
Those are big results from a program that started 40 years ago as a project of the Junior League of Eugene. There were a growing number of child abuse cases in the community, so the Junior League began providing respite care for at-risk parents in a church basement. Since then, the model has expanded across the state into a nationally recognized network of independent nonprofits.
Glynn says there are many ways families connect with Relief Nurseries. “Some self-refer, others are referred by pediatricians and programs, others by child welfare. Our philosophy is that the door is open and there’s no wrong way to enter,” she says.
When a family enters the Relief Nursery program, they work with staff members to create a plan. “It’s all individual goals,” Glynn says.
Children attend Relief Nurseries based on their age and family goals. Babies usually visit the therapeutic class setting with their parent or caregiver once a week, and a session will typically have three teachers for every six infants. Toddlers may visit twice a week and attend class with three teachers for every 8 pre-kindergarten students.
The same teachers conduct the home visits, which Glynn calls the “secret sauce” of the program. Having the teacher visit the home means they can talk to parents in a constructive way about their individual child’s development, parenting tips, and the family’s needs in a way that supports the whole-family model.
Glynn says the nonprofit Relief Nurseries both help end the cycle of abuse and neglect, and helps kids from at-risk families be ready for kindergarten.
“The goal is to get those pieces in place so the family is strengthened and the child is ready for a successful K-12 career,” she says.