Utah Navajo Health System, Inc. is about to become the first organization in the State of Utah to be involved in a highly regarded family health education program called Family Spirit.
Family Spirit is defined as “an evidence-based, culturally tailored home-visiting program of the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health. Its purpose is to promote optimal health and well being for parents and their children. Family Spirit combines the use of paraprofessionals from the community as home visitors and a culturally focused, strengths-based curriculum as a core strategy to support young families. Parents gain knowledge and skills to promote healthy development and positive lifestyles for themselves and their children. This program has been developed, implemented, and evaluated by the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health in partnership with the Navajo, White Mountain Apache, and San Carlos Apache Tribes since 1995.”
Shawn Begay, the new Public Health Director for UNHS, will supervise the organization’s Family Spir-it® program. Shawn has been the Clinic Manager for the UNHS Monument Valley and Navajo Mountain Community Health Centers for several years. He is leaving that position to be the UNHS Public Health Director. He is well suited for the job, with a background in public health and a degree in Public Health from Brigham Young University. He is currently enrolled in a Masters of Public Administration program at the University of Utah.
According to Begay, three LPN’s, one each from UNHS Community Health Centers in Blanding, Montezuma Creek and Monument Valley, will be selected in the next month or so to become Health Educators for the Family Spirit® program. They will undergo an extensive week long training to prepare for their new positions. Trainers come from Johns Hopkins University, but they are located all across the nation, including Chinle, Arizona and San Francisco.
“Family Spirit program is a home visit model geared toward young Native American families, and all families served by UNHS, regardless of race. Those who are young single mothers and young couples who have kids,” Begay explained. “They might have had kids when they were young teenagers. There are life skills they might not have picked up on because of an unplanned pregnancy, or maybe it was planned. Family Spirit is a program to help them learn how to interact with their children and teach them life skills. It’s a series of lessons that progress along with the life cycle of the child as well as the mom. The program works with single parents or couples. It’s actually encouraged to involve both parents if they are both there.
“It begins in the third trimester. That’s when we’re looking to make contact with the patients. It concludes with the child’s third year of life,” Begay continued. “It teaches them various things, like understand-
ing how pregnancy is for the mom, her changing body, physical features, and how the body feels after giving birth. Some people have postpartum depression and we help them be familiar with that. It’s a Health Educator that will go into the home and be able to teach this to the people.”
Other lessons teach about how you get pregnant because in indigenous communities a lot of people really don’t understand that, Begay noted. They also touch on fidelity, abstinence and contraceptives, and simple things like how to feed a child, how to change diapers and why babies cry.
“Some young parents, who had children as teenagers don’t know about these things,” he added. “It’s the Health Educators job to help them understand. We’re not there to judge. We’re just there to share the information.”
Begay said Health educators become very familiar with their patients. The lessons don’t have to be in the home. Patients can come to the clinic and do them, or they can meet with their Health Educator in a park or walk with them and talk about the lessons.
“We want our patients to feel comfortable in whatever setting they’re in. The whole purpose of the program is for us not to judge them,” he added. “People come from various backgrounds and living conditions and so forth. All Family Spirit is geared for is to get the education out there. The further you progress in the lessons they talk about life skills. Maybe it could be on letter writing, resumes, interviewing skills – what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate. Anything they could utilize.”
Begay explained that Family Spirit is a voluntary program. Patients are referred to the Health Educators by their health care providers. It’s up to the patient if they want to enroll or not. No one is forced to be part of the program, but the information provided by the Health Educators can be quite beneficial. There’s no age consideration for those enrolling in the program. Patients could be young parents with their first child or older parents with children later in life.
“I’m looking forward to it. I think that we can definitely use it here to ramp up that area of public health,” Begay said. “Family Spirit is a good program to give these kids a good start to life, letting mom know that everything she takes into her body goes into the baby. So you want to make sure that, health wise, you have healthy habits, taking things into your body that are helpful to the baby and not harmful like alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. We have a very diverse population with challenges other areas of the country don’t face. A lot of us congregate around reservations and the areas we live in are far and in between, without access to a lot of the things found in mainstream societies like I had in Provo or Salt Lake. It’s non-judgmental. Everyone has their own life. We’re there to educate. If we can make good and have these good decisions carry on with that child, I think that’s like a battle won.”