03/13/2013 01:29 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Creating Healthier Children and Families Through L.O.V.E.

My passion grew from a tragedy that could have been avoided. In 2000, I was the Director of a Head Start program in Missouri. We served 500 families over 8 counties with 100 miles separating some sites. One baby boy was the son of a mom who was only 14 years old. They lived in a trailer in a little town in Northeast Missouri. The town had a small grocery store which doubled as its gas station. The town did not have any physicians and was an hour away from the nearest hospital. It was a cold, winter's evening. The young mom noticed the baby was not responding to her. She thought he felt extremely hot; but she didn't have a thermometer. She became scared and begged a family friend to take her to the nearest hospital. The long trip seemed endless to her, the baby didn't cry or move much. When they arrived at the ER, the nurse took the little bundle and immediately knew - the baby had died. How could this have happened? And, an even more important- what could have been done to prevent this tragedy? My staff and I mourned the loss of the baby; we also mourned the loss of the young mother as we never saw her again after the funeral. We vowed to make sure no other parent would go without the training and the support they needed to prevent such a tragedy. We became driven to find a way to engage our families with the health of their children as the main focus.

In that same year, I had the honor of participating in the UCLA/Johnson & Johnson Head Start Management Fellows Program. There I met the person that would forever change the course of my career, Dr. Ariella Herman. Dr. Herman was planning to assess various types of health training programs to test low-literacy approaches to educating Head Start families how to better care for the healthcare needs of their children at home. Could engagement of families ultimately improve health outcomes? This is exactly what I needed - this is what my program needed! So, I began my quest to include our very rural Head Start program in the pilot of Dr. Herman's. After following Dr. Herman around a conference and making impassioned calls to be in the training pilot, she accepted our program.

The day our parent training was to happen, another tragedy struck. It was September 11, 2001. We were heartbroken. As we tried to comfort families who lost loved ones that day, our resolve to help those less fortunate than us, did not wane. We needed Dr. Herman to come to train us, we needed this health training for our families, we needed to do it for one little boy we did not save. Our parents were trained 3 months later. The months following the training were nothing short of watching the engagement miracle unfold: The Health Care Institute (HCI) became the catalyst for renewing our staff and engaging the families that they work with. We found a way to engage parents and provide them with knowledge and tools they needed to care for healthcare needs of their children at home. We were so excited to see the families come to multiple health trainings. We were so proud that the reasons they came were the relationships that they formed with staff. We were on to something - it was all about L.O.V.E. ™ (Listening, Observing, Valuing, and Encouraging). We learned that when we truly listened to our staff and families they responded with more intensity. What we observed was a change of heart. Our staff stated that they were more "connected" to families and remembered why they became Head Start employees.

We continue to train with L.O.V.E.™ (oral and basic health, obesity prevention and prenatal care). I have seen a tremendous increase in healthcare knowledge and in the confidence levels and self-esteem of families in the program. A parent who has the tools to make appropriate decisions about the healthcare of their child has been given self-confidence and self-esteem. I believe when a person has self-esteem mountains can be moved and mountains have been moved in the lives of countless families through the HCI.

Since 2001, HCI has trained over 60,000 families nationwide in seven languages, reporting a 43% decrease in school days missed and 56% decrease in clinic visits, but it goes beyond lowered clinic visits or reduced sick days. The value of the program cannot be measured. Through L.O.V.E. ™, I am reminded that RELATIONSHIPS are everything in working within the social service sector and it is L.O.V.E. ™ that ensures the engagement of families.