No lines at the department that cares for moms

Published 10:25 am Monday, May 15, 2017

Although many qualify for free aid, hundreds do not take it

Most people know that the Port Arthur Health Department provides WIC (Women Infants and Children) for women who are expecting. WIC provides formula and cereal for babies, but there is much more to WIC than baby food. Women who are expecting can benefit from WIC from the time they learn they are pregnant until their child is 5 years old for whole-family nutrition and development and more.

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“Women Infants and Children, that’s what everybody mostly thinks about when they think about the health department, but we do more than distribute milk for families and give stipends for the foods that go along with WIC,” LaTasha Mayon, assistant health director, Port Arthur Health Department, said. “It’s a lot—peanut butter, the cereals, we do fruit now. We do a lot of different things.

“Another thing that many people are unaware of is that even though the WIC program is housed in the city of Port Arthur’s Health Department, the department services more than just Port Arthur and Jefferson County. In fact, the Port Arthur Health Department services four counties – Jefferson, Orange, Hardin and Chambers.”

And just as vast as the program’s geographic coverage are the program’s resources. The services WIC offers help babies, of course, but they also help mothers and families grow stronger and stay healthier. And yet, WIC Director Brandy Patteson said she is concerned people aren’t taking advantage of the services provided by WIC. Patterson said currently, there are 1,000 openings in the WIC program for the four-county area served by the Port Arthur Health Department.

“Unlike programs like food stamps or TANF, where it’s just based off of income, we’re only allowed to service so many people,” Patteson said. “But, right now, I think one of the things that people don’t realize is that we have the availability to serve about a thousand more people than we’re currently servicing per month. So, we really want people to come in here and know that they can get services from us.”

Retention is something else that concerns Patteson. She said that people who could continue to use the program are not sticking with it because they think someone else needs it more or they don’t understand how to use the benefits. She said the taxpayer-funded program has plenty of room for people and so much to offer, but if it’s not used it will be reduced or lost altogether.

“It makes me sad to know that there are a thousand people a month more that we could be servicing and those people aren’t walking through our door or they’re not staying,” Patteson said. “A lot of times we hear things like, ‘Well, I’m going to let someone else who needs it more than me get it.’ But, we don’t necessarily want people to think that way. We want people to come in here and get services from us.”

Patteson, who is a registered dietician, said she has to remind people that benefits from WIC not only provide help buying nutritional foods for children and babies, but also cover foods for moms during the first six months after giving birth, which is such a crucial time in the new mother’s life because their bodies are still making adjustments and full of hormones. Plus, she said, moms who are breastfeeding need extra care and quality nutrition to sustain their health and their baby’s health.

“They don’t always realize we’re not just the formula people,” Patteson said. A lot of times people think, ‘I’m just going to go there for the first year of life and get formula, and at the end of that, I’m done. And, the babies are going to get food all the way up until they’re 5 years old, all the way through that last month of their fifth birthday. Then we do a graduation ceremony when they turn five to celebrate them going through the whole program with us.”

Another little-known service provided through the WIC program is peer counseling, which is a comprehensive breastfeeding program. It is free and includes a variety of classes, videos and one-on-one personal support by licensed counselors for moms.

“We do a lot of breast feeding support too. So, back again to that,” Patteson said. “We’re not just the formula people. We really want to promote and encourage women to breast feed because of the benefits it has for mother and child.”

Peer counselors have to have taken a variety of classes and certifications required by the state, as well as having breastfed their own child to qualify as peer counselors. They also must be certified by the IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultants). They are supported by The Medical Center of Southeast Texas and Christus Hospital.

“It’s really confusing sometimes because there’s a lot of misinformation out there and I think that’s part of the problem,” Patteson said. “We go through a lot of training. To be a peer counselor you have to go through the trained breastfeeding educator program, through the Texas Department of Health and Human Services. So that program in itself is 18 hours of training.”

Breastfeeding is something that the WIC program encourages because it is healthier for mother and child. Mayon said that it is also something that is pushed in the latest program for WIC recipients called Nurse Family Partnership.

“One of the main goals (of the NFP) is to improve child health and development and to improve the economic self-sufficiency of the family as a whole,” Mayon said.

Mayon is most proud of the Nurse Family Partnership program, a free and educational program for first-time moms. WIC recipients automatically qualify for the program, as do food stamp recipients.

“It has to be a first pregnancy,” Mayon said. “If you’re on WIC you automatically qualify. Basically, it’s two years of free nurses coming to your home to make sure that you’re OK. It’s like a home health agency for pregnant individuals.”

The program begins when a woman is 20 weeks pregnant and goes until the child is 2 years old. Expectant mothers are educated on the process of pregnancy, birth and motherhood and given the tools to succeed.

“We teach you how to care for your child,” Patteson said. “We teach you during pregnancy what labor and delivery are going to be like, things that you need to do, things that may help you with certain discomforts, like nausea, vomiting, sometimes false labor, things like that. We teach you how to deal with that. Then, once you have your baby, the goal is for you to be a productive citizen. So, we try to steer you toward working or going to school or accomplishing a goal you didn’t think you could accomplish because you were pregnant.”

Among the many services WIC provides for families are referral sources for a variety of needs. Whether someone is in need of healthcare, shelter or an escape from an abusive situation or just wants to further their education, WIC recipients can find relief and assistance as part of the program.

“That’s the other thing that people need to realize. When you come into WIC, our job does not end with just making sure that you have a card with food benefits on it or getting nutrition education and breastfeeding education,” Patteson said. “We’re a referral source, too. So, if you come in here and you tell me that you’re homeless, I’m going to get you into a homeless shelter. If you come in here and tell me that you’re afraid because there’s some kind of abuse going on at home, I’m not going to let you walk out that door until I’ve done something to help you.”

Patteson said that high-risk referrals are also among the services provided in the WIC program. For example, if an expectant mother is not gaining weight properly or is losing weight, the health department sends someone to the client’s home to assess the problem. They call the client’s physician, determine if they need a change in their nutritional plan or if it could be something more serious, and then, if necessary, work together to find resources to refer them to health professionals who deal with those issues.

“Let’s say someone has something like food allergies or something that’s not necessarily a high-risk referral, and that parent wants their child to see us, we’ll see them too,” Patteson said. “I think you don’t realize just how many things people come in here with and I don’t think that they realize too that we’re here to help them with those things.”

Mayon and Patteson encourage all citizens in the four counties the Port Arthur Health Department serves – Jefferson, Orange, Hardin and Chambers – to visit the facility, call, go to the website to take advantage of all that the WIC program offers. Patteson said that people are likely to be eligible and not even know it and she said there’s no harm in finding out.

Questions can be cleared up with a visit to the website or a call to the Health Department at (409) 983-8800.