As a single mother with an autistic seven-year-old, Marguerite already felt overwhelmed by life. So she was scared when her infant, Francis, started crying for 12 hours at a time. Then he stopped napping. Then he stopped looking at people. He stopped looking at her. Marguerite froze.
A recent immigrant from a West African community where mental health challenges were stigmatized, Marguerite’s fear makes sense. “And she wasn’t sure of her English. She felt victimized by the system,” notes Dr. Irene Mazer, Sheltering Arms’ Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant. But beneath those reasons, Dr. Mazer and staff discovered a more trenchant challenge. “She didn’t want people to find out she was ‘a failure’”.
That fear had taken its toll. By the time Marguerite found Sheltering Arm’s Early Childhood Education program, Francis had been struggling almost half his young life. Even then, Dr. Mazer notes that just considering a home visit was progress. “We knew how to help, but needed her permission to give support. That first home-visit was terrifying. He was clearly struggling, and she was in denial.” Still, “just getting there was a success.”
After many false starts, “many texts and a combination of tools to gain her trust,” Marguerite and Francis met Dr. Mazer on the street corner by the building where he would be evaluated. Going in together, they found an explanation; Francis likely was “on the low-range of the autism spectrum.” They also found solutions at Sheltering Arms: Early Head Start programming for him and a Parents Group for her.
Getting to that Group was progress, too. In her first session, the woman next to Marguerite brought up her ten-year-old autistic son and his “special school.” A light went on. A door opened. Possibility dawned, “and suddenly she belonged.”
In fact, today, Marguerite is her child’s best advocate, according to Dr. Mazer. “Yesterday, she ran up to me before the Parent’s Group – breathless – so excited. She’d made a leap as an advocate for her son and couldn’t wait to tell me.”
She told Dr. Mazer about how a local resource center had limited Francis’ special education time to 10 hours, how she’d been counting on 20 hours, how she’d summoned her best “Dr. Mazer” persona, insisting that “my Early Head Start Program is going to say that 10 hours is not acceptable.” That’s what Dr. Mazer would say. Then she did what Dr. Mazer would do, and called the coordinator at the resource center, who agreed.
With Marguerite advocating for his every need, Francis has stopped crying for hours at a time. Now this little one, who had never taken a nap, takes them regularly, thanks to teachers at Sheltering Arms. Even mom was surprised by that. But the truest sign of progress for a young mom who once ran from fellowship is her self-regard. “I’m just running out to get a soda, and then I’m coming back for your group!” she told Dr. Mazer. The topic of the day was: How to enhance healthy relationships.
Marguerite stayed for the entire session.
Because a child’s future relies on key moments during early childhood development, Sheltering Arms’ widely reputed programming for children and their families begins at birth. Our dedicated early childhood educators offer a constantly growing set of innovations including mental health support and prenatal education for parents. It’s a two-generational solution that makes parents’ well-being an equal priority, from professional and educational advancement, to mental health groups and expert interventions. The results paint a promising picture of the future, not only for kids, but for families. More than 90% of children in our Early Childhood Education programs meet or exceed developmental standards by the end of the year, up from just 45-60% in the beginning of the year. 100% of parents in the Early Childhood Education programs attended at least one workshop last year.