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story.lead_photo.caption Bella Distler stands still so Rachel Strange can take her temperature as she arrives one morning last week at Cole County Head Start East on Cherry Street. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

As the COVID-19 pandemic set in, staff and administrators at facilities that serve the most vulnerable children saw reason for concern.

A recent Kids Win Missouri report detailed the additional challenges COVID-19 caused to come about for parents with children of color, children with disabilities, foster children and children with single parents.

Often from afar, local organizations tried to support those parents.

Central Missouri Foster Care & Adoption Association immediately began looking for resources that would help reduce stresses on families it serves, Director Deana Alonso said. CMFCAA sought and received grants from the United Way of Central Missouri, Callaway County United Way and community foundations, Alonso said.

"We've been trying to mitigate any kinds of situations any of our families have met," she said.

Grants have since run out, but the organization assisted with utility, mortgage and other payments and helped clients with transportation needs.

"We also began an educational tutoring option for those who are homeschooling their children. In addition, we have navigated child care needs and offered grandparents and other relative providers support through our Kinship Navigator program," Alonso said.

The Kinship Navigator provides a network of supports to relative caregivers — including child needs assessments, crisis intervention, and psychiatric services referrals and testing — to help victims of child abuse achieve stability in their lives.

CMFCAA and Compass Health partnered early in 2020 to monitor and support foster, adoptive and kinship families with immediate mental health needs, Alonso said.

Information about all CMFCAA resources may be found at mofosteradopt.com.

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Kids Win Missouri report highlights parents' concerns during pandemic

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Four Family Resource Centers support the organization's families, with locations in Jefferson City, Rolla, Columbia and Osage Beach. People having trouble accessing the website or who require advocacy services should call 573-298-0258 or email [email protected]

CMFCAA provided "Fun Packs" to children and youths with elevated trauma who live in foster homes. The packs offer activities such as reading, walking, gardening, pumpkin carving and movie nights to provide relief.

Although they had been on hiatus, CMFCAA has recently resumed Odyssey Events, which provide a four-hour evening of play for foster children, allowing caregivers a respite, Alonso said.

Cole East Head Start also works with its clients' entire families, Director Rachel Strange said.

"We have a family approach — working with the family all together," Strange said.

The program serves many low-income families in Jefferson City.

Shortly after the pandemic started, the facility at 605 Cherry St. had to shut down.

The Head Start program serves a diverse community of children whose families have expressed concerns about "the unknowns" the community is facing, Strange said.

"We were able to provide families with virtual visits," she said. "We were able to give them cleaning supplies and did drop-offs at their houses. When we did open back up, we were only able to have a limited amount of kids."

Staff and teachers stayed in touch with families and tried to meet their needs.

The first month or so was especially difficult because it was hard to find some of the basic items families needed — like diapers and wipes. Head Start received a grant to help it provide those and other products for babies, she said.

During the period the school was closed, in addition to virtual visits, staff provided questionnaires for their families each week. Families would tell them what they needed.

After reopening, the school couldn't let parents bring their children inside. So teachers and staff now greet the children as they arrive.

"Not all the kids were able to return initially. As weeks went on, we were able to have more kids," Strange said.

The Head Start program was eventually able to allow all its children to return.

"For kids who had been out of their routine for a couple of months, coming back and seeing teachers in masks was scary," Strange said. "(When teachers aren't wearing masks) you can see their facial expressions. You can see if they're smiling. We do have kids who have had previous trauma and have seen scary things."

Teachers shared simple stories that discussed the importance of masks — why the adults at the school now wear them — and why they aren't so scary. One staff member even made "see-through" masks so children could see the facial expressions on staff members' faces.

"(Parents are) not able to come inside yet," Strange said. "We are still doing drop-offs outside the building and taking temperatures. The families that I've talked to have a sense of comfort, knowing we are taking these kinds of precautions."

The Special Learning Center at 1115 Fairgrounds Road helps children with special needs meet challenges they face through classroom instruction and comprehensive therapy services.

Debbie Hamler, who operates the center's foundation, said when the center closed its day care facility and school in mid-March, teachers and staff had to come up with ways to continue offering programs to children. It was important to maintain gains from therapy sessions, she said.

"We recorded videos for kids. We did Zoom meetings," Hamler said. "Every teacher created a Facebook page just for her class."

Home programs included some therapists conducting FaceTime meetings with parents, to walk them through physical therapy techniques or respond to questions. Teachers had weekly calls with parents.

One therapist went to parents' homes and stayed outside a window and, using a doll, showed the parents how to conduct specific physical therapy on a baby.

"We did see some regression in children, especially those with serious physical disabilities," Hamler said.

There were parents who had anxiety, she said.

She explained some of the children whom the center serves have behavioral issues. And, being in a classroom structure helps control those issues.

When children did return to the center, staff were very concerned about having to wear masks around the children they serve.

"A lot of our kids are averse to doctors and hospitals because they've been there a lot. It's been good or bad," Hamler said.

But the children adapted quickly, she continued.

One non-verbal girl, when she comes into the center, sometimes points to her face, Hamler said.

"All we have to do is pull our masks down and show her our faces, and she's good to go," she said.

The challenges are a little more difficult for speech pathologists at the center, Hamler said. Part of their work includes showing children where their lips and tongues must be placed to make an expected spoken sound.

Some teachers have to wear face shields, particularly when working with children in the center who are hearing-impaired.

"We've had to make a lot of changes," Hamler said. "We are not doing field trips, and we don't have volunteers in our building."

Volunteers play important roles in caring for the school's clients, she said. They allow teachers more one-on-one time with the children, but they also provide extra sets of eyes and ears in the classrooms.

One plus the center has is room for activities outside the building, Hamler said.

"We have a great playground and a good outdoors. That has been a blessing," she said. "But we're not sure how it's going to feel in winter."

 

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