Keeping Families Connected

A program that emphasizes working with parents in their own homes pivots to virtual visits to make sure families have the support they need

A child in the Ch’anik’en Home Visiting program admires the seeds he planted from the activity box he received.

This August, Sabre Askoak received a package in the mail. Inside, there was glue, paper, scissors, crayons — all the items her kids would need to create finger puppets. Later, with virtual instruction from their family mentor, Sabre and her children made moose, bird, and other puppets, then settled in for story time, as Jessie Vasquez read aloud to them over Zoom.

Jessie is a family mentor with CITC’s Ch’anik’en Home Visiting program, the basis for which is culturally appropriate child development activities done in a family’s home, under the guidance of a mentor, that help families become successful. But what do you do when a pandemic prevents in-person meetings of any kind?

You get creative.

Home-Based Learning

“Technology has been a big part of us continuing to serve our families,” remarked Nicole Hunter, Ch’anik’en program manager. “It’s been a big paradigm shift in the way we think about supporting families. But it’s been a positive shift.”

Ch’anik’en is one of only a few CITC services that happen away from the Nat’uh Service Center. Family mentors go into the homes of program participants and use items in the home to engage parents in their children’s early development and learning.

“The Parents-as-Teachers model allows us to coach parents in their child’s development. It’s super hands-on, with parents doing activities, learning Alaska Native languages, and engaging in their culture with their kids,” Nicole explained.

Her team had been regularly visiting about 38 families enrolled in the program before the pandemic, including Sabre’s family.

“We did a lot of interactive play during home visits,” Sabre said. “Jessie helped me get my two-year-old potty trained, and when my one-year-old started biting her older sister, Jessie helped with that, too.”

When COVID-19 hit, Sabre spent several months at home with her children. Then she landed an externship that would take her away from home. “I knew my girls were going to have separation anxiety. Jessie helped me prepare them so they wouldn’t have it as bad. I sure appreciated that kind of help.”

New Ways to Connect

A Ch’anik’en activity box and book.

Just before COVID-19 forced Alaskans to go into quarantine, Nicole’s staff had serendipitously received new Parents-as-Teachers curriculum that offered a virtual home visiting option. Now, mentors like Jessie conduct their visits over the phone or online.

Ch’anik’en staff also rethought its “group connections,” monthly gatherings where families usually meet in person to learn a skill and connect with other parents. Since May, Ch’anik’en has offered Virtual Storytelling, which offers stories told virtually and materials for families to do activities that reinforce the story theme.

Family mentors also gave out activity kits to keep families engaged and stay connected with the program throughout COVID-related quarantine.

“With our activity kits, families could connect online with a mentor, or they could do the activities with their kids on their own,” Nicole explained. “We really tried to put a lot of planning into those — thinking about what families could actually use, how the activities could connect back to Alaska Native culture.”

Ch’anik’en families spent the summer growing herbs from a kit and using sensory balls to do exercises inspired by an accompanying book. They took program-provided berry buckets and went berry picking, then shared their experiences and photos in Ch’anik’en’s private Facebook group.

Another Way to Parent

“COVID-19 changed the needs of our families, so our supportive services changed, too,” Nicole added. “We really tried to meet the needs of the families we work with — and that became an additional way to stay connected.”

Planting seeds.

Thanks to CITC’s Participant Emergency Fund, which was established at the onset of COVID-19 to provide one-time support to families in need due to the pandemic, Ch’anik’en was able to dispense items like diapers, gas cards, food, and other essential items. Sabre, for example, was able to get needed clothes for her daughters.

“We’re so thankful,” Sabre said — and not just for the clothing.

When she first enrolled in Ch’anik’en, Sabre had already taken parenting classes when her son, now 14, was young.

“I knew there were other ways to raise kids,” she commented. “After I had my two girls, and seeing the way my husband was trying to raise them, and knowing how I was raised — I just knew Ch’anik’en would help us see there’s a different way to raise children. I know I’m not the perfect parent, and neither is my husband. Ch’anik’en has helped us so much. I’m loving it.”

As regulations around social distancing have begun to ease, Ch’anik’en family mentors have started meeting with parents in outdoor settings with COVID-19 protocols in place. With winter’s first chill in the air, the program will plan for how to best serve families through the colder months, especially if COVID-19 continues to be a factor.

“We know how hard it can be to feel isolated,” Nicole said. “We want to make sure our families know that we are still here for them, even if we can’t be inside their homes.”

Interested in Ch’anik’en Home Visiting? Learn about eligibility requirements here. Discover other CITC Child & Family Services here.