A single pregnant mother with three children under the age of fiverecently arrived at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in need of transitional housing, transportation, childcare and baby supplies. Unsure of how to care for herself or her growing family, she didn’t know where to turn or what to do. Thankfully, the people at First 1,000 Days Suncoast did.

“We’re helping the most vulnerable mothers and families,” says Kelly Romanoff, Innovation and Impact Office for Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation, which spearheaded First 1,000 Days Suncoast in 2018. “We’re keeping them from slipping through the cracks.” First 1,000 Days Suncoast (housed within the Sarasota Memorial Health Care System (SMHCS), is a community initiative that supports parents, caregivers and their babies, so that all families have equal opportunities to thrive regardless of race, education or socioeconomic status. A member of The Basics Learning Network, the program helps families during pregnancy and their child’s first 1,000 days of life (when 80 percent of child brain development occurs).

A Community Network 

A partnership of nonprofit organizations and healthcare providers creates a network of free and affordable services for these families. And, in January, the Steering Committee that oversees the strategic direction of this network expanded to reflect a new four-county regional focus.  

“This initiative started in Sarasota, and it’s been incredible to see the interest and response from our three neighboring counties,” says Kameron Hodgens, Ph.D., the chief executive officer of Glasser/Schoenbaum Human Services Center at the time this article was written, who was recently elected chair of the First 1,000 Days Suncoast Steering Committee. “As a mom who lives in Manatee County and works in Sarasota, I know that county lines mean very little when accessing healthcare for your children. I’m proud to be a part of this Steering Committee as we make this a more regional effort.”

Six new members have also joined the Steering Committee to represent Charlotte, DeSoto and Manatee counties, and to deepen the emphasis on public health, child welfare and service to Latino families: Angie Matthiesen, the executive director of United Way of Charlotte County; Katie Powers, a nurse and clinical leader at Manatee Memorial Hospital; MJ Horen, the chief program officer for the DeSoto Food and Resource Center of All Faiths Food Bank; Lisa Abello, a pediatrician and chief medical officer for CenterPlace Health; Luz Corcuera, the executive director of UnidosNow; and Nathan Scott of Circuit 12 Child Welfare Policy Coordination for the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County.

Their involvement will help the team at First 1,000 Days Suncoast connect with babies and families who are born or receive care at Sarasota Memorial Hospital but live in surrounding areas.

A Wider Reach 

Nearly 45 percent of babies born at the hospital every year reside in a neighboring county, so the organization will connect these families with community partners to create a coordinated system of care.

“Specific to reaching the ‘bottom 10 percent’ of those in most need, Sarasota Memorial Hospital now screens all pregnant women who come to the hospital for social determinants of health,” Romanoff says. “The hospital has an OB emergency room for pregnant women, where they report when they are in labor and things are going well. But this is also where many women show up who are having complications or signs of early labor. All pregnant mothers go through this department and it is an ideal intercept for First 1,000 Days services.”

The OB emergency room nurses screen these mothers for the environmental, emotional and social factors that influence their well-being.

“Despite their direct linkage to physical well-being, many healthcare facilities shy away from asking questions about living conditions, domestic violence, food insecurity, etc. because they don’t want to be responsible for solving these ‘non-medical’ issues,” Romanoff says. “Sarasota Memorial Hospital is different, and it’s all because of the First 1,000 Days referral system ‘Unite Us.’”

On day one of the new screening process, a nurse helped the aforementioned single pregnant mother (who came to Sarasota Memorial Hospital in need of housing) by making seven referrals through Unite Us. In less than 24 hours, two of the mother’s three young children had already been picked up, and the mother was connected with the Early Learning Coalition (for childcare) and Better Together (which provides peer support to help prevent children from entering foster care).

“Had this mother gone to Sarasota Memorial Hospital the week prior, her fate would have been entirely different. She would have left the hospital without any of these connections,” Romanoff says. “Now, when she goes into labor and returns to the hospital, the social workers will be flagged, and the First 1,000 Days team will be there to greet and support her and her children. She and her children aren’t alone in their struggles. We are grateful to Sarasota Memorial Hospital for their compassionate and innovative approach to healthcare.” 

A Compassionate Vision

So what initially inspired the inception of First 1,000 Days Suncoast? It started with Charles and Margery Barancik, founders of Barancik Foundation, who asked their staff to research how to address summer learning loss for students. In talking with community partners, the Barancik team learned a valuable lesson that now informs their approach to philanthropy: “The earlier the investment, the greater the return.”

“We realized that, if we really wanted to make a difference in education readiness and community well-being, we had to start before a child was even born, ensuring that families have the support needed to lay a strong foundation in their life,” Romanoff says.

Beginning in 2016, Barancik Foundation’s team spent more than a year, alongside Sarasota Memorial Hospital and 31 other partners, exploring how the community could better provide families with the foundational support they needed during babies’ critical early years.

“First 1,000 Days Suncoast coordinates services to make it easy for families to connect with community supports,” Romanoff says. “Before, there was a literal maze of resources that parents would have to navigate if they needed help during and after their pregnancy.”

A Devoted Team

Chelsea Arnold, D.N.P., A.P.R.N., is the initiative manager for First 1,000 Days Suncoast. She works with Family Navigator Tina Wilson and Community Support Specialist Siena Kelley. Their initiative, which began in Sarasota County with 32 partners, has now expanded to include Manatee, DeSoto and Charlotte counties with more than 85 partner organizations, Arnold says. SMHCS is the backbone of the organization, providing robust technical, legal, clinical and marketing support.

“Our team not only helps families navigate the system of care by connecting them with local medical, mental health and social services provided by our partner agencies,” Arnold says. “But they also facilitate community meetings and workgroups to break down systemic barriers to care, and they introduce agencies and professionals to build new partnerships and fill gaps in services identified by the community.”

One of the largest, most significant endeavors of the initiative is the building of a regional Parent Advisory Committee. “Parent voice” is regarded as the most valued aspect of the initiative, and First 1,000 Days Suncoast aims to ensure that parents and caregivers are empowered to be leaders in their own community, Arnold says. This program has already impacted the region in multiple ways. 

“We have been building new partnerships between organizations to better serve families, and listening to parent voices to build programs that are effective, sustainable and helpful,” Arnold says. “We have been providing parents with educational tools and resources to help their child develop and flourish, and increasing awareness about early brain development and the critical nature of the early years through a region-wide campaign. We have also been identifying and resolving barriers to care through the convening of community experts, and supporting professionals with educational opportunities (on topics like trauma-informed care).”

The Glasser/Schoenbaum Human Services Center was one of the “early adopters” of the concept of creating this community-based, easily accessible support network for mothers and babies, Hodgens says.

“Research shows that access to high-quality prenatal care, as well as assistive services postpartum for mothers and babies, play a critical role in the overall health and well-being of a family,” Hodgens says. “Having a child is not an easy process. Parents should never feel isolated or without answers when living in a community like ours that is abundant with supportive resources.”