Health Department's Healthy Families program provides support as teenage couple grow into parents

Mandy Gwirtz, Healthy Families Douglas County case manager, left, watches how 6-month-old Ashton Walker grasps his toys along with his parents Zach Walker and Emily Rader during a home visit in January 2013. Mandy is looking at Ashton’s motor development skills.

Mandy Gwirtz, Healthy Families Douglas County case manager, left, watches how 6-month-old Ashton Walker grasps his toys along with his parents Zach Walker and Emily Rader during a home visit in January 2013. Mandy is looking at Ashton’s motor development skills. by Karrey Britt

When Emily Radar and Zach Walker learned they were going to have a baby, they say their lives were turned upside down.

Emily was a junior attending Lawrence High School. Zach had just graduated from Perry-Lecompton High School and was working part-time in a neighborhood bar. He planned to attend college and play soccer. The two lived with their parents and enjoyed attending parties, hanging out with friends and going to movies — typical teenager stuff.

“We had to grow up real fast,” Zach said.

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Zach delayed his college plans and started working full-time to help support Emily and help save money for their baby. Emily stopped attending traditional high school and entered the Lawrence Diploma-Completion program. She also moved into Zach’s parents house with him because she was no longer allowed to live at home. Emily said her mother thought she was being rebellious and so their relationship was strained for a while.

Emily also lost touch with many of her friends because she didn’t attend parties where alcohol was involved. “It was kind of like being the third wheel, but I wasn’t going to do anything stupid during my pregnancy,” she said. Emily said she struggled emotionally during the first trimester of her pregnancy. “I didn’t feel like I loved the baby and I felt bad about that. I wondered if that was normal.”

Those feeling changed, she said, when she started to feel the baby kick and then she saw him on a sonogram. “I just knew it was meant to be.”

Still, the couple had no idea how to prepare for the baby. They were grateful they learned about the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department's Douglas County Healthy Families program, which provides in-home visits and support for new parents. They were assigned a case manager, Mandy Gwirtz.

“I didn’t know a thing about being a parent. It’s not like I had somebody that could help. None of my friends were parents. I couldn’t call them up,” Emily said. “Then, I got Mandy.”

Mandy began meeting with the couple on a weekly basis when Emily was seven months pregnant. The first thing they did was watch a video about the labor and delivery of a baby — something typically done in the first trimester. Then, Mandy provided them with safe sleep information so they could set up the crib. They also talked about relationships with family and friends and Emily shared the baby book that she was creating with Mandy.

Mandy said, “Emily had to go through sort of a grieving process because she was 17 years old and surrounded by her friends and they were really active. Once she became pregnant, that didn’t fit anymore. She kind of mourned the loss of what was and adjusted to what is.”

Emily gave birth to Ashton Walker on June 27, 2012, just a few weeks after earning her high school diploma.

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As Ashton nears his first birthday, Mandy continues to play an integral part in his family’s life. Emily is a stay-at-home mom and Zach works full-time. They look forward to Mandy’s visits.

“I love having Mandy around,” Emily said.

Mandy provides support, education and a connection to community resources when needed. For example, she has helped them apply for health insurance and food assistance. She also gathers information for them about career and education opportunities. Emily’s thinking about becoming a nurse or lactation specialist. “I want Ashton to be proud of us and I want him to have a nice house and nice things,” she said.

Mandy provides a lot of child development education. She talks about what’s typical for a child at Ashton’s age and what they can be expecting him to do next. She offers tips on how to interact with him to promote his development and how to cope when he is crying because of teething or an illness.

“It’s really helpful because there is no preparing for a baby. There is no manual,” Zach said.

Zach Walker and Emily Rader play with their son, 6-month-old Ashton Walker, while visiting with Healthy Families Douglas County case manager Mandy Gwirtz in January 2013.

Zach Walker and Emily Rader play with their son, 6-month-old Ashton Walker, while visiting with Healthy Families Douglas County case manager Mandy Gwirtz in January 2013. by Karrey Britt

The couple receives additional support through a new Young Parents Group that is offered through the Healthy Families program and is facilitated by Mandy. They enjoy meeting other parents who are their age and having the opportunity to hear about their experiences and then share their own. Emily has talked about what she feels are some of her breast-feeding successes including the bonding she has felt with Ashton and the known health benefits of breast-feeding. “It’s cool that I may have influenced a couple of moms to breast-feed,” Emily said.

Emily and Zach also participate in bi-monthly “Family Time” social events that are offered through the Healthy Families program such as visiting a pumpkin patch or participating in a holiday celebration with Santa.

Mandy said it has been a privilege to be part of Emily and Zach’s journey. “They’ve grown as parents and it makes me happy, too, when I see Ashton doing so well.”

Emily and Zach plan to get married when the time is right, but they’re in no hurry. “Emily said, “We love each other and he’s my best friend even though we argue. There are more good times than bad and having Ashton has brought us closer. I think it proves that our relationship is strong because we are taking on being parents together.”

Ashton Walker, 6 months, looks up at Healthy Families Douglas County case manager Mandy Gwirtz.

Ashton Walker, 6 months, looks up at Healthy Families Douglas County case manager Mandy Gwirtz. by Karrey Britt

Mandy Gwirtz, left, visits with 5-month-old Ashton Walker and his parents, Zach Walker and Emily Rader during a holiday party at the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department.

Mandy Gwirtz, left, visits with 5-month-old Ashton Walker and his parents, Zach Walker and Emily Rader during a holiday party at the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department. by Karrey Britt

Comments

jlpreston71 1 year, 5 months ago

Thank you Emily and Zach for raising a healthy, happy baby and for sharing your story!

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