Theresa Perez learned about Pathstone Carbon County's Early Head Start program when she enrolled her daughter Jaylyn, 3, in the regular program. At the time, her youngest child, Brayden, was but months old.

Early Head Start, offered through the Pathstone Carbon County Head Start centers in Lehighton and Coaldale, is for pregnant women, and children from birth to age 3. The program is offered free of charge to low-income families and works through home visits from specially trained staff members.

Perez, of Lansford, had her doubts at first.

"Honestly, I expected a little personal invasion. I wasn't really looking forward to a stranger coming to my house," she said. "But it's great. It's nothing like I thought it would be. It's excellent."

Perez said the home visitor, Cerissa Kibler, is "really friendly, not intrusive at all. It's just like having a friend over for an hour-and-a half each week."

Even though she's already an experienced mother – Perez and her husband Robert also have an 11 -year-old, Aliyah, and a 9-year-old, Milena, in addition to Jaylyn and Brayden – she said she's learned from the program.

"Things change. For instance, they had information about car seats. The rules for car seats have changed drastically since my 11-year-old was born," she said."It's something I never would have looked into because you assume that you know it from the first time."

As Perez recounts her experiences while sitting in a classroom at the Coaldale center, Beth Schreffler, of Nesquehoning, plays with her little girl, 20-month-old Hunter.

Schreffler enrolled in Early Head Start when Hunter was three months old. She learned about the program as she enrolled her second-oldest daughter, Hilary, now 5, in Head Start. Hilary is now in kindergarten. Schreffler also has a 3-year-old, Hannah, in Head Start, and an 8-year-old, Hailey, who is in third grade.

Schreffler said her home visitor, Holly Watson, is good with giving each child one-on-one time, and letting Schreffler know about changes in immunization schedules.

"They really help you with everything," she said.

Shreffler said she didn't know what to expect when she signed up.

"I really had no idea what they were going to teach a baby. But instead of teaching her, they taught us stuff – different things that we needed to know, like about car seats and immunizations, and getting help with WIC (the federal Womens, Infants and Children nutrition program).

Early Head Start came about in Nov. 2009, when the Pathstone Carbon County Head Start program received a letter of financial award for $920,520 from the federal Health and Human Services department that allowed the program to serve 72 Early Head Start children, from birth to age 3, and pregnant women.

The program is in place at both the Lehighton and Coaldale centers, having begun in June 2010. So far, 28 children and five pregnant women have been enrolled in the Coaldale center, and three pregnant women and 46 children in Lehighton.

Getting the best start, even before birth

The program aims, among other things, to make sure pregnant women receive adequate prenatal care.

"We just want to make sure that everybody is healthy," said Bernetta Frantz, director of Children and Family Development Services for Pathstone.

Upon enrolling, a pregnant woman is asked only to provide income documentation – she must meet federal poverty guidelines. For a two-person family, that's $15,130 a year, according to Health and Human services.

"When a woman is pregnant, that's a family of two, as far as the guidelines go, because she is carrying a baby," Frantz said.

Once enrolled, the pregnant woman receives a visit from a specially trained Head Start staff member. The staff member and mother-to-be decide how many home visits will happen. Usually, the visits are once a week, Frantz said.

The visits are built around a curriculum called Parents As Teachers, which provides parents with information on child development from birth through early childhood, and suggests opportunities to stimulate intellectual growth and language development, physical and social skills. The program helps parents learn how to handle challenging behavior and encourages strong parent-child bonds.

Pathstone Carbon County Head Start Center Administrator Jeannette Triano said all Early Head Start home visitors go through Parents as Teachers training. The training includes learning about dental and medical care, and what to expect during pregnancy and after the baby arrives. She also can help the mother-to-be draft a list of questions to ask her doctor. At this stage, the home visits are geared to helping the mother-to-be get what she needs to have a healthy baby.

"It's basically about the Mom at that time," Frantz said.

The home visits also provide an opportunity to make sure mothers-to-be know about resources such as the federal Women, Infants and Children nutritional program, which offers low-cost healthy foods.

"We can provide that information, and actually set up appointments if she doesn't know how, and get her involved with the WIC program, because we already know that nutrition is important for a pregnant Mom," Frantz said.

The Early Head Start visitor also makes sure the pregnant woman has a health care provider.

Frantz emphasizes that home visitors are not there to inspect the home or judge the mother.

"We're not an inspector. We don't come in with white gloves. We are there for the woman who is pregnant, and their needs," she said.

The home visitor will, however, talk about safety. Triano said the visitors offer safety kits, health and safety books, books about prenatal care, smoke detectors, and safety checklists for new parents.

After the baby arrives, the focus shifts toward the new little life

Then, a home nurse comes to the house within two weeks to see how life is going for the mother and child. Early Head Start also includes a "goody bag" for the baby and for the new Mom. The bag contains such things as body lotions and other niceties.

"She's tired and she needs to be pampered," Frantz said. "We want moms to feel just as important as that new baby."

The home visits now work on getting the newborn into a routine.

"The home visits progress as the child progresses," Frantz said. The visitor screens the baby for developmental passages, using a program called Ages and Stages. The screening from birth to three months, for example, checks for alertness, physical skills such as bringing her hand to her mouth, developing a social smile, and following moving objects.

Twice a month, mothers and their babies or toddlers are invited to get together at the Head Start center.

As the babies grow into toddlers, the home visits change to keep pace with the little one's development.

Eventually, by age four, the child may be enrolled in regular Head Start classes.

To enroll in Early Head Start, or for more information, call Viki DeMarco at (610) 377-5671 or BillieJo Swartz at (570) 645-7578.