Four years ago Kimberly Fischer was pregnant with her first child and anxious about making the best parenting choices for her unborn baby boy.
“While I knew that I wanted to give my newborn a bright future, finding an organization that could help me get the right information on making positive choices for my child was very difficult,” Fischer said.
Now the mother of 4-year-old Jackson and 14-month-old Silas, Fischer and her husband Bryan have come to rely on the Baraga Houghton Keweenaw Child Development Board (BHK) for parenting help. BHK, a non-profit agency founded in 1974, serves 566 children, prenatal to age 5, and 427 families in the Copper Country region of Michigan. The organization offers Head Start and Early Head Start programs, in addition to services that teach parents about breastfeeding, healthy eating, physical activity and preventative care.
“When I became pregnant with my second son, I still had a lot of questions about motherhood and how to be the best parent possible,” Fischer said. “When I learned about BHK and began attending on a regular basis, my confidence level as a parent skyrocketed, and both my boys really thrived.”
Supported by a W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) grant, BHK provides comprehensive early learning and developmental support for young children and their families through a collaborative approach between parents, children, early childhood educators and members of the medical community.
They host a variety of experiential activities in homes and at playgroups where BHK staff educates parents about taking an active role in the lives of their children. The agency encourages participation in a way that parents see themselves not only as caretakers, but as teachers and nutrition advocates.
“Our organization is an open invitation for support,” said Katie Waara, BHK’s nutrition and lactation coordinator. “We cover all three counties here – Baraga, Houghton and Keweenaw – so if a parent needs help or has a question about early childhood, we’re here to assist them with a direct approach and no red tape.”
BHK partners with the local health department to educate the community on the importance of assisting new mothers with breastfeeding. This partnership provides breastfeeding support for mothers, and instruction at the hospital after they give birth from trained nurses and certified lactation specialists who encourage a connection between parent and child.
The breastfeeding rate in Michigan’s Copper Country region has increased in recent years from 67 percent to 79 percent, as the continuation of breastfeeding for the first year of life (which is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics) has increased from 1 percent to 13 percent.
Fischer said she is grateful to be connected to an organization where she can talk freely about breastfeeding without judgment.
“When I gave birth to my second son, the hospital staff was open to assisting me with my breastfeeding questions right away and I knew it was because of BHK,” Fischer said “In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had a parenting question go unanswered since learning about the organization.”
In 2007, BHK began the “Healthy Families Preschool Obesity Prevention Project” in response to 30 percent of the preschool children entering the organization being overweight. The project was funded through a federal Rural Health Outreach grant and an innovative partnership with Northwestern University’s Center on Obesity Management and Prevention.
The organization also focuses on early childhood obesity prevention, targeting various environments, including homes and early childhood centers.
Early Head Start students attend playgroups and receive weekly home visits, making BHK’s approach comprehensive.
“Ultimately, BHK strives for healthy children,” Waara said. “When children come to the Keweenaw Family Resource Center Indoor Treehouse, they are taught about the importance of physical activity and encouraged to pay attention to what they eat. This trend goes for all of our playgroups and home visits.”
Cheryl Mills, director of BHK’s Head Start and Early Head Start programs, said the agency’s goal is to generate both a dialogue and longstanding commitment toward improving early childhood health, education and development in Michigan’s Copper Country region.
“Through creating a dialogue for parents about things like initiating breastfeeding, encouraging healthy eating and reinforcing the importance of active play, we’re helping our youngest community members get the head start that they need in order to be successful in life later on,” Mills said.
Fischer said it helps to have support outside of family when it comes to making parenting choices.
“BHK offers me and my boys comfort and strength. I consider us a big family, and I am thankful for their help in making me a better parent,” Fischer said.