Building Up Parents: Healthy Start's Janelle Vanderah

They say parenting is the toughest job in the world. 

Thankfully, EveryStep's Healthy Start & Empowerment Project and the program’s roster of dedicated case managers lend a helping hand for families in the Des Moines area.  

In recognition of Parents' Day, July 28, EveryStep wants to recognize the programs and employees who work to ensure caregivers in the metro have the tools to be the best parents they can be.  

Janelle Vanderah is one of those case managers, working to connect her clients to resources and services to support their families. 

Vanderah, who has been a Healthy Start case manager with EveryStep for a year and a half, studied social work in college and knew early on that she wanted to work with families.  

When Vanderah was 12, her brother passed away after battling cancer. She remembers the comfort she received, being surrounded by people who supported her.  

"That support from family and friends was so important," she says. "That situation was very difficult, but I also knew that there were many people who have been through bigger battles than I could imagine and didn’t have the support that I did. That was really when I knew I wanted to go into social work." 

With both her mother and aunt working in the social work field, Vanderah was familiar with the challenges of the job.  

"They were honest about the difficulty of the jobs but were also honest about how rewarding it could be," she said.  

After working with the Department of Human Services' Family Safety, Risk, and Permanency Services, Vanderah was looking for a change of pace. That's when a former college classmate suggested EveryStep's Healthy Start & Empowerment Project. 

The program provides case management to families in need in Polk County who are pregnant to have a child up to the age of 6.  

Case managers, like Vanderah, provide visits to pregnant and parenting women who would like extra support to ensure a healthy child and family, as well as their own health. The program offers free personalized one-on-one education and health screenings for clients, and it connects them to resources and services in the community.  

"Ultimately we're there to say there are things in the community for you, maybe you didn't know about them before," Vanderah says. "Sometimes there's a language barrier and they wouldn't know these resources are options."  

To help these families, Vanderah relies on EveryStep's interpreters, who often make home visits with her. The EveryStep Interpretation program employs nearly 30 interpreters who speak more than 33 languages and dialects. 

"When I first started the one thing I liked the most was getting to see the diversity in the area," she says. "I'd worked with interpreters before, but that was mostly in Spanish. Here we rely a lot on interpreters when visiting with clients. We rely on them to be that cultural guide, what do we do, what's acceptable."  

During home visits, Vanderah and other case managers build relationships with the families and determine their immediate needs, whether that be connecting them to transportation resources for appointments or to ESL (English as a second language) classes.  

"It really depends on their needs," Vanderah said. "A lot of what we do are screenings to make sure their kids are on track developmentally. If they aren't then we connect them to resources that help get them on track."   

Vanderah recalls a client who scored low on a developmental screening. Vanderah was able to provide a referral for Early ACCESS, a state program that provides early intervention services.  

Because of the early intervention, the family began to see improvements in their child's speech.  

"It's good for the parents to realize that it's not their fault,” Vanderah says of supporting parents when their child needs additional resources. "They didn't do anything wrong."  

EveryStep's Healthy Start & Empowerment Project also offer several groups for clients, including parenting and prenatal classes that offer strategies for parenting and walk participants through the pregnancy and childbirth process. Other groups include a consumer meeting, which happens every three months. Parents receive a provide a meal and education, transportation and childcare.  

Finally, there's a parent/child group, as well. The group focuses on activities parents can do with their children to help with development.  

"These groups are important because they provide our clients with a way to connect with each other," Vanderah says.  

Vanderah, who sees anywhere from three to four clients or families a day depending on their schedule, says the first month she'll likely visit a client once a week to assess their immediate needs. After that, the schedule will vary, sometimes seeing them once every other week or once a month, depending on the family's needs.  

Later visits consist of educational opportunities. For instance, this month, Vanderah is discussing home safety with her families. The Healthy Start & Empowerment Project curriculum also includes topics such as safety sleep, car seat safety, and domestic violence.  

"If a client has a question or shows interest in a topic, we'll bring information to them," she says. "Healthy Start does a really good job. We're there to advocate for clients, to be that support, especially those that maybe don't have that support around them."  

The support EveryStep offers families extends beyond connecting them to resources and programs in their community. Sometimes employees lend a personal hand.   

Earlier this year, a family who has just begun working with the Healthy Start & Empowerment Project program and Vanderah experienced a fire and lost everything in their home. Vanderah quickly reached out to her team and the entire EveryStep organization for help.  

"I reached out and asked employees to donate to the family," Vanderah notes. "EveryStep Giving Tree [thrift store] even stepped in to help. It was really cool that our agency was trying to help, that employees who are trying to get through their own days took the time to give back to a client family."  

While Vanderah says she enjoys building relationships with her clients, she knows the ultimate goal is to say goodbye.  

"The goal is self-sufficiency," she says. "We want them to be able to do things on their own, we are there to ensure they have the resources to do that. Eventually, they don't need us anymore. It's a good thing."  

To learn more about the Healthy Start & Empowerment Project program, click here. To join the EveryStep team, visit our career page