Regional early childhood nonprofit adds rural advocate program
Healthy Beginnings, a regional nonprofit, serves multiple communities throughout the Central Oregon area.
Typically, when the Bend-based organization wants to provide services in another community, they mobilize their staff, compile whatever materials they might need, and set up shop in a reserved location for the day.
Though the model has not precluded the nonprofit from providing its health and developmental assessment for children ages birth to 5, Executive Director Diane Murray-Fleck felt the organization might benefit more from a local advocate in each of Central Oregon's rural communities.
"I have been in this (executive director) position about a year and a half, and I just started to look at that (Bend-centric model) and ask why we do it that way," she said, "because I know rural Oregon likes to take care of themselves. They like to take care of their own, and they certainly have a core value of taking care of children."
So Murray-Fleck spearheaded the recently launched Rural Advocate Program. Announced in late December, the program provides an advocate in Prineville as well as the rural communities of Madras, Sisters and La Pine.
"We are committed to honoring the diversity within Central Oregon's rural communities by hiring community members who are passionate about early childhood development," Murray-Fleck said. "We are excited to expand and strengthen our reach with rural advocates being the face of Healthy Beginnings in their own communities."
Prineville's rural advocate is Ryleigh Shiner, a mother of two young children who has attended one of Healthy Beginning's screenings and saw the value of having volunteer professionals "who are there to talk with you about your child, listen to you, not make you feel like a number or a 'case' — no pressure, just caring volunteers who are there to help with your child's future and health."
Healthy Beginnings provides Central Oregon families with accessible, free health and developmental assessments for children from birth to 5 years old, as well as referrals to appropriate community agencies, follow-up services, information and support.
The purpose of this program is to provide accessible, preventative assessments to confirm the well-being of children and/or to identify and refer concerns in the areas of health, development and behavior.
Since its inception 23 years ago, Healthy Beginnings has provided these services at no cost to families and currently offers assessment clinics throughout Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties.
The role of the rural advocates will be to provide outreach to community members who might want to take advantage of the services Healthy Beginnings provides.
"With the rural advocates living in their communities, they are able to speak on Healthy Beginnings and talk about upcoming screenings in the community," she said. "The rural advocates themselves don't have a brick and mortar (location), but they do attend a lot of early childhood development events. They go to their local library's preschool reading hour. They are mobile and out and about in the community with materials."
In addition to conducting outreach, when Healthy Beginnings schedules an event like its Comprehensive Health and Developmental Screening, which covers everything from dental, speech, vision and hearing to development and behavioral health, the advocate takes on a prominent role in hosting it.
"They are responsible for securing the location, making sure that it has everything we need," Murray-Fleck said. "They also attend the screening and have to be trained in one or two stations so that they could host a screening."
The rural advocates will never be asked to tackle health assessments on their own, Murray-Flecks stressed, adding that many health professionals are involved. However, as they pilot the new program, she hopes they will take ownership of the coordination process.
Going forward, Murray-Fleck hopes to see the rural advocate program spawn more involvement from additional community members.
"I do think what will organically happen out of this as we will start to get local volunteers helping with our screening and local parents learning about early childhood development and wanting to get more involved," she said. "I am really excited to watch and observe where else it gains traction. My hope is we start to get local community members who want to host stations."