Providing social and emotional learning
It takes a village to raise up a child, and that mantra is especially evident at MountainStar in Central Oregon.
The organization provides strength-based child abuse and neglect prevention services to children ages 0 to 5 years of age in Prineville, Bend, Redmond, La Pine and Madras. MountainStar's services include therapeutic early childhood classes designed for babies and toddlers living in high-stress and chaotic homes who typically do not get enough quality time with a responsive caretaker. The staff and volunteers create a safe and predictable environment to respond to the individual needs of each child in the program.
Tim Rusk, executive director for MountainStar, reflected on the beginnings of the program 20 years ago, which celebrated its ribbon cutting in April 2001. The first year, they served 34 babies and toddlers, which has grown to 300 young children and their families on their 20-year anniversary.
"It was formed in Deschutes County around this idea of a community plan, where 'Can't we do more and do better for families with babies and toddlers that are having a hard time?'" explained Rusk of the beginning and purpose of their program.
He went on to say, "Essentially, is child welfare the best we can do for families and for children—and it's not. That's not the best we can do, in fact every community has members in it who want to reach out and do something more and are willing to get involved and are willing to help. What they found out 20 years ago, was the relief nursery program model is a great way to bring together passionate community members – with some state funding, in order to provide services and keep kids out of the child welfare system and strengthen families maybe at a time when they are at a low point and a little bit of help at that time, can make a huge difference."
There are two main services provided by MountainStar. The first involves outreach services, where families get involved in home visits, home support and getting to know the families and see if they qualify for services. Some families stay in outreach and receive crisis support, food boxes and diapers, as well as material support. They also qualify to receive respite childcare, and they can bring their child in once per month for socialization and classroom support experiences.
The second service is referred to as the Therapeutic Early Childhood Program. This service includes classroom experiences for the children for three hours at a time, two times per week, as well home visiting and parent education.
"It's really a cluster of supports and services that are designed to help children living in high-stress homes and also parental support too," said Rusk.
In the past year, MountainStar added a program in Prineville, Redmond and Madras called Preschool Promise. Rusk said that there are many similarities to Head Start in its design. It is for preschool-age children, and the income requirements to qualify for the program are for parents with an income below 200% of federal poverty level. The program is entirely publicly funded.
"The more that people understand the importance of early childhood and what a precious opportunity that is in terms of child development and family strengthening, there is so much potential and that goes right along with the risk of abuse," he added.
Rusk pointed out that statistically, approximately 40% of all child abuse victims are between 0 and 5 years old. Children at this age are less able to ask for help, articulate their needs, and are more vulnerable. The number one focus in the classroom includes social-emotional development, which includes learning to interact with peers and attachment with a caretaker or teacher.
Although April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, Rusk noted that their byline is, "At MountainStar, child abuse prevention is what we do all year."
He added that they are also active with the Blue Ribbon Campaign, and they partner with the Kid's Center in the Child Abuse Prevention Proclamation. They recently released a spring newsletter to draw attention to the issue of child abuse prevention. Rusk said that during the recession in 2008, there was a great deal of study and analysis around how financial stress and the stress of the great recession increased child abuse rates. Currently, during the COVID lockdown, they have not seen that, but they believe the decrease is due to less adult presence in children's lives. There is a decrease in child abuse reports.
"The actual child abuse rates have dropped, and in Oregon it dropped 23%, and we know we didn't solve child abuse. The problem is a lack of reporting. Best guess is child abuse is probably going up a little bit with family stress. We are getting cases under-reported."
According to the spring newsletter, "the families who participate in MountainStar programs in 2020 had an average of 14 stressors before the pandemic started. The pandemic added fear, health concerns, and even more worries on the shoulders of already vulnerable families. … When parents are stressed, it is harder for them to provide a safe haven that supports children's social-emotional development—which can lead to a lack of emotional regulation that inhibits learning in childhood and throughout life."
The newsletter goes on to say that MountainStar programs come in during these times to help, which helps to relieve stress for both parents and children. Their home visitors listen to parents' struggles, provide connections to community resources, and help families find solutions and work toward goals.
430 NW Fourth St.,
Executive Director Tim Rusk
Hours: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Monday through Friday
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