Navigating the way: ParentLink program links families to services
EAST PRAIRIE, Mo. — The young woman and her two children were homeless. She didn’t know where to turn. She didn’t know what to do.
Sometimes when the path in life is full of roadblocks, you need a navigator to help find the way. That is when Amanda Williams stepped in.
Williams, the ParentLink navigator for New Madrid and Mississippi counties, began to reach out to the resources the program had compiled. She found an apartment for the family; a group stepped forward to furnish it and another paid the deposit.
Within a month, the mother felt secure enough to begin work with the Susanna Wesley Center to earn her GED.
For Williams, it was her first big challenge in her new role as one of three ParentLink navigators in the Bootheel.
Carol Mertensmeyer, PhD and ParentLink director, said this is exactly what ParentLink is designed to do.
According to Mertensmeyer, the overall mission of ParentLink is to reduce adverse childhood experiences as well as promote optimal development. They do that by helping families access services that are already in place.
“What we do is to provide problem solving, support and connections to services,” Mertensmeyer said. “Often those services exist and parents have a need but there is a disconnect.”
The barriers, she continued, can be wide ranging. Sometimes parents lack transportation or the time required to wait in an office or on the phone for an answer from an agency. Others lack the literacy skills or are intimidated by the paperwork required to apply for services.
“Our ParentLink navigators can help parents overcome the barriers and get to the services that exist,” Mertensmeyer explained.
Serving with Williams as a ParentLink navigator in the area are Jamie Rogers in Scott and Stoddard counties and Shirley Ellis in Pemiscot and Dunklin counties. They work in conjunction with the county health departments.
The program director has high praise for the three.
“They bring that education along with a wealth of experience to their jobs of serving and supporting families,” said Mertensmeyer. “They have that warmth, education and experience to be successful in helping … anyone raising a child.”
Before heading out to their counties officially on Feb. 1, the three underwent training by the ParentLink program. They learned about resources available through the ParentLink central office including a telephone line which is staffed 24 hours a day.
Freda Kershaw is working as an adviser with the three area ParentLink navigators. Kershaw saw the need for navigators while working with a grant program in Pemiscot County.
“Our current navigators will be building a catalog of community resources so when a family needs services (the navigators) will have up-to-date information to connect families to services. But it isn’t enough to give a person a telephone number, there needs to be someone to walk them through to be sure the service is actually received and that something doesn’t stop them short from getting service – that is what navigators do,” Kershaw said.
“We are asking the navigators to be creative — to be thinking on their feet,” she continued. “It is not always a simple solution but a lot of times there are ways that they can make it happen.”
Both Kershaw and Mertensmeyer emphasized the ParentLink navigators are not seeking to create new services. Instead, they said, they are there to teach people about the services that already exist and get people connected.
Currently the navigators are trying to get the word out about how they can help families.
Kershaw and Ellis attended a recent meeting of area social service providers to learn more about about what is available locally to those in need. They also discussed with the group some of the barriers the navigators are seeing.
The navigators introduced themselves while assisting with school screenings and they have left forms with medical providers and schools. The staffs at the county health departments are directing those in need of services their way. In addition the navigators will attend resource fairs and other public events to get the word out that they are here to help.
The navigators continually work to track the resources and services available in the Bootheel along with how to access them.
“We know a lot and are learning more,” said Mertensmeyer. “And we are trying to better understand who else in the community is helping families so we have a whole system of helpers. We are trying to at least Band-Aid the system right now and strengthen the system as best as possible.”
And the navigators are staying busy.
At her office at the Mississippi County Health Department at East Prairie, Williams said she is often called upon to help fill out Medicaid forms for individuals. She said she has advised families on the additional benefits they have with various insurance programs and how to best use those benefits.
Most importantly, Williams said, she listens.
By listening closely she said she better understands the barriers a family faces and why they aren’t receiving the services they are eligible to receive.
“When they finally see you really working with them, really listening to them and trying to help them, they are really surprised by that,” Williams said. “It is encouraging them really.”
She said she also must be a diplomat, explaining to other agencies just what her role is.
“Sometimes you have to get in there and say: ‘I’m not here to take your job, I’m here to help you.’ You have to let them know that you are here to try and make it all work together and letting the people know you are out here with this service so that they can utilize you more.”
Mertensmeyer said as the public and the service providers become more aware of the navigators and the role they play, she expects the service to continue to evolve. Eventually, she would like navigators to be available all across Missouri.
ParentLink navigators can be reached through the ParentLink call center at 1-800-552-8522 or by contacting the county health departments in Scott, Stoddard, Mississippi, New Madrid, Dunklin and Pemiscot counties.