Childhood wellness programs highlighted

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – As Humboldt County’s governmental departments focus on treatment of social dysfunction, First Five Humboldt is working on its prevention and the agency’s annual report details the work done in 2017.

Mary Ann Hansen, First Five’s executive director, gave a presentation on the report at the Oct.23 Board of Supervisors meeting.

Hansen said that since 1998, when the Proposition 10 tobacco tax was approved by voters, over $21 million has been invested in early childhood and family services.

In 2017, 7,404 children have been served by 29 First Five Humboldt-funded programs, according to the report.

Hansen highlighted First Five’s playgroups, which bring parents and children together to promote social interaction and also offer mental health support.

There are 18 playgroups throughout the county and Hansen said they provide the social support that strengthens families. In Northern Humboldt, there are playgroups in Manila, Arcata, McKinleyville, Blue Lake and Trinidad.

The report quotes a playgroup participant as saying that through the program, “I’ve made lasting friendships and so have my children” and that the playgroup experience “shaped my journey as a parent.”

“That speaks to the social connection element,” Hansen said. “Especially in Humboldt County, social isolation is a huge issue – our culture of secrecy in our county can impact that, as well as our rural nature.”

Hansen described the playgroups program’s success, which is measured through interviews with participating parents. She said the 2017 results are surprisingly strong, with 99 percent of parents saying the playgroups had positive effects on their children and themselves.

They told the early childhood mental health specialists at the playgroups that they felt more effective as parents, experienced less stress and learned more about their children and their needs, Hansen continued.

She also emphasized the importance of informing parents of services and activities that are available in the county.

A portion of revenue from the county’s Measure S cannabis excise tax is being used to fund early childhood mental health support services. The Measure S funding allowed First Five to hire two additional early childhood mental health specialists for playgroups in outlying areas and for bilingual playgroups.

Hansen said that in the 2017 to 2018 fiscal year, the county’s funding also allowed the establishment of 19 partnerships with community groups and agencies to provide support services for children and pregnant women, with 2,500 residents served.

The main partnership is with the county’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Its work includes the expansion of mental health services to playgroups and establishment of a mini-grant program for community groups that support families.

First Five’s role in being proactive rather than reactive was highlighted by DHHS director Connie Beck.  

“Our mandates aren’t funded for prevention, everything that we do is at the end and we need to move that needle,” she said.

Supervisor Mike Wilson, who is the county’s representative on the First Five Commission, said investment in early childhood programs delivers an “exponential payback.”

He described it as being “probably the best investment that we make as a county.”

This year’s First Five program advances include a series of training sessions for foster parents on helping children who have had traumatic experiences.

First Five’s Proposition 10 revenue is declining due to reduction of tobacco sales and the increase the legal smoking age from 18 to 21. According to the report, revenue has decreased by three to four percent each year and that trend is expected to continue.