No longer homeless, Jennifer Parker, seen here holding 2-year-old daughter Naudia, receives recovery services and support through the area’s Healthy MOMS program. Maria Kolcharno, at left, director of addiction services at The Wright Center for Community Health, and Vanessa Zurn, far right, a Healthy MOMS case manager at The Wright Center, are among the team members who assist more than 135 actively enrolled women and their children.
Homeless and pregnant, Jennifer Parker didn’t know in the summer of 2019 if she could take care of herself, much less a baby.
Then 35 years old and struggling with addiction, she had been using illegal substances including cocaine and heroin for about half of her life. The former Lake Ariel resident had a criminal record and little else to her name.
She was encouraged to schedule an appointment with a case manager at a relatively new program in Northeast Pennsylvania – the Healthy Maternal Opiate Medical Support program, known simply as Healthy MOMS.
After a brief conversation, the case manager directly asked: “Do you want to keep this baby?” Parker, who at the time had no place to stay, no shoes on her feet and a single spare shirt that she carried in a shopping bag, answered “yes.”
It was a one-word affirmation of life, and it awakened something in this mom-to-be that she badly needed: hope.
Parker’s situation began to change for the better almost immediately, thanks to her determination and the assistance of the Healthy MOMS program – a collaborative effort involving The Wright Center for Community Health, which is a co-founder of the program, and dozens of partners. The nonprofit Maternal and Family Health Services Inc. and multiple area hospitals are among the many health care, social service and government agencies that power the program’s ongoing success.
“After I met with a case manager, it was life-changing,” says Parker. “It sounds corny, but it was. I never expected to be where I’m at today. Everything is different.”
The Healthy MOMS program was launched locally in late 2018, aiming to help pregnant women and new mothers overcome addiction and embrace a life in recovery. Participants are offered blanket services that include medication-assisted treatment and addiction services, counseling, primary health care, OB-GYN care, parenting tips, legal advice and a range of other supports.
Jennifer Parker credits the Healthy MOMS program with helping her to achieve and maintain sobriety, allowing her to raise daughter Naudia. The Healthy MOMS program is a collaborative effort co-founded by The Wright Center for Community Health.
The program promotes the well-being of both mom and newborn, ideally engaging them in wrap-around services until the child turns 2 years old.
“Since its launch three years ago in response to the opioid crisis, the Healthy MOMS program has become a widely recognized and respected resource for women who face the dual challenge of coping with a substance use disorder and juggling the complexities of raising a young child,” says Maria Kolcharno, The Wright Center’s director of addiction services and a key leader of the Healthy MOMS program.
The program has served mothers as young as 14, but most are in their late 20s and 30s. Named after a program of the same name in Ohio, it was introduced in this region as a pilot program in two counties, with initial grant funding secured by the Lackawanna/Susquehanna Office of Drug and Alcohol Programs. Today, it assists women in Lackawanna, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike, Schuylkill, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming counties.
For moms-to-be like Parker, participation in the Healthy MOMS program can be transforming. “From the time I entered the program until I had my daughter, it was only three or four weeks,” says Parker. “But everything was different.”
The Healthy MOMS team quickly found a safe place for Parker to sleep, so she wasn’t on the street or staying overnight with strangers. She received clothes and shoes. She was linked to multiple community-based programs and services, especially taxi and ride-sharing services to get to all of her important appointments. And she and her unborn baby received proper health care.
Over time, Parker’s habits and even her appearance changed. When interviewed for this article, she was 17 months sober and seeking to enroll her 2-year-old daughter in day care. Her goal: Pursue training in a cosmetology program and ultimately open her own salon.
Former Lake Ariel resident Jennifer Parker is taking steps toward a better life for herself and daughter Naudia, 2, after receiving support from the Healthy MOMS program to achieve sobriety. ‘The Healthy MOMS team nurtured me when I needed it,’ Parker says.
“The Healthy MOMS team nurtured me when I needed it,” explains Parker, “and then you start moving on your own.”
Other Healthy MOMS participants have reported developing a stronger sense of optimism and an increased self-confidence, with several expressing an interest in obtaining their GEDs and pursuing further education.
The program’s ability to help women and their families has been fueled by generous grant support from private, state and federal entities, including the AllOne Foundation, Direct Relief, the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, and the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.
Evidence suggests that mothers who join the program and participate in recovery services well before their delivery dates are less likely to give birth to babies who experience neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). NAS is a potentially painful and costly medical condition caused when a newborn withdraws from opioids or other drugs that the baby had been exposed to in the womb.
Parker’s turnaround in 24 months serves as a stunning example to the Healthy MOMS team of what can be achieved when a woman is receptive to help and supported not by a single organization, but rather by an entire caring community.
Not so long ago, Parker believed her disease had such a grip on her life that she couldn’t tend to her own basic needs. “Now,” she says, “I can’t imagine not being sober.”
To contact The Wright Center for Community Health-led Healthy MOMS program or get more information, call 570.955.7821 or visit HealthyMOMS.org.