Help Me Grow works to connect education, health care for children

Navigating the world of education and health services for children can be intimidating for many parents.

A new service coming to Baton Rouge will work to make connecting with these services a little easier in hopes that more children can become ready for school at age 5 or 6.

Help Me Grow, a national organization that links families, teachers and child care professionals with information about available services and programs in their communities, plans to begin an operation in Baton Rouge in spring 2013.

“Resources change on a daily basis,” said Dr. Paul H. Dworkin, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and a founder of Help Me Grow. “Grants come in or they don’t come in. People are not able to know within their communities what the opportunities are within existing resources and what resources are changing.”

Most often Help Me Grow focuses on getting help for parents concerned about their children’s mental developmental growth and behavior. Parents with questions about their child’s aggressive behavior or tantrums, speech and language development or general concerns about the child’s development can call a number to find out what they can do for help, Dworkin said.

The Capital Area United Way is preparing to launch the service by placing “care coordinators” at the 211 phone number operated by the Baton Rouge Crisis Intervention Center. They will be equipped with a constantly updated database of services in a 10-parish area such as The Arc of Baton Rouge, McMains Children’s Developmental Center or Baton Rouge Speech and Hearing Foundation.

Linking the right services to the right families can help to raise the number of children prepared for school when they start kindergarten — now 48 percent are not ready, said Karen Powell, director of education initiatives at the Capital Area United Way.

“In this day and age there are so many options and resources and families end up getting bounced around the system,” said Joanna Bogin, the manager of the Help Me Grow National Center.

Help Me Grow care coordinators can keep that from happening to families, Bogin said. “The care coordinators stick with them no matter what. They are available to talk to about all the issues (families) are dealing with.”

Help Me Grow was founded in the 1990s in Hartford, Conn., a “poor city in a wealthy state,” said Dworkin. It grew from the explosion of research into the development of children’s brains.

“We assumed that young children with behavioral and developmental issues were escaping early detection,” he said. “You only had to walk into a kindergarten or first-grade classroom to see that.”

A wide range of programs existed to assist families with their children’s development, but Dworkin and his colleagues found that those in need were not aware of the programs and never knew where to look for help.

In Connecticut a study found it took seven and a half contacts to connect parents to the right resources for their children, Dworkin said.

“So these care coordinators need to be extraordinarily resourceful and engaging,” he said.

Dworkin remembers when he was a practicing pediatrician and he assembled a blue binder full of resources and services for parents who needed help with their children. Those binders quickly became out of date as services closed their doors or had no vacancies.

“Now when we go into practices, and they proudly bring out their blue binders of resources, we politely tell them to throw them away,” Dworkin said. “They are more likely to lead to frustration. Instead we point out this dynamic, real-time inventory.”

Help Me Grow is now in 17 states, Dworkin said, and it has been welcomed by nonprofit organizations and pediatricians, he said.

“It’s not about detracting from or intruding on any of these community-based services,” Dworkin said. “It’s all about linking parents and children to those community-based services so they can be as effective as possible.”