Finding a way

. September 20, 2012.

A family welcoming a special needs child can be as happy as any other family — but at the same time it's inevitable that they're going to need some help. And help is available, but navigating the landscape of public services can be overwhelming and bewildering for new parents who are already dealing with diapers, feedings and everything else that new parents deal with. Luckily, Findlay-area families have Project Director Jen Rathburn and the Hancock County Family First Council's Help Me Grow program.

The Family First Council was created to give public officials and community leaders a venue to coordinate the county's family services, and to avoid both redundancies and gaps in needed care. "(The Council) came about from a lack of coordination of community services for kids," Rathburn says. "They came up with a list of state-mandated agencies to make sure that services were streamlined." The Council meets every other month, with some 20-25 regular attendees, including the city's mayor, superintendent of schools and the county commissioners.

Helping families in need

The Help Me Grow program, in existence since the early 1990's, is the Council's way of working directly with families in need, and Rathburn is uniquely suited to lead it. "I have a Master's in Public Administration," she says, "and one of my emphases was nonprofit administration. Both of these programs really put together government and nonprofit work." Help Me Grow can step in as soon as a family knows that their child may have a developmental problem — even before birth.

"We work with families to do developmental screenings," Rathburn says. "If they show areas of concern we can put a team together and do a full evaluation. An (eligible) child has to have a delay in one or more areas of their development. We look at all areas — social, emotional, gross and fine motor skills, cognitive." Families are assigned a service coordinator, who help them arrange a care plan and set goals. "It can be as simple as 'I would like my child to walk,'" Rathburn says.

"We can serve families free meals, from pregnant moms up to age three," she continues. "We can help them transition into whatever preschool they want."
Help Me Grow works directly with families in their homes, and sponsors many family events, providing food and transportation. Kids might get to meet Santa, or enjoy a trip to the zoo. The program also lends out books and DVD's with information that parents need.

A new parent herself, Rathburn understands the troubles parents can face. "Since I've had a child, I think that I relate to the families a bit more," she says. "It makes you appreciate people who do an awesome job at parenting." But she's proud of the work that she and the Council are doing, and aware of what a good place this can be to raise a family. "We have a really great system in Hancock county," she says. "We're very fortunate to have everything we have here."