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posted: 2/26/2016 5:30 AM

Young and pregnant in suburbs? Help line may be going away

Suburban program that helps young, at-risk families feels budget crunch

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  • Video: Help jeopardized by stalemate

  • Gloria Jimenez, of Mount Prospect, left, talks with Carol Brown, Shelter Inc.'s director of development, at the Arlington Heights office.

      Gloria Jimenez, of Mount Prospect, left, talks with Carol Brown, Shelter Inc.'s director of development, at the Arlington Heights office.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Gloria Jimenez of Mount Prospect, left, talks with Carol Brown, Shelter Inc.'s director of development, at the Arlington Heights office.

      Gloria Jimenez of Mount Prospect, left, talks with Carol Brown, Shelter Inc.'s director of development, at the Arlington Heights office.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Gloria Jimenez worries that Shelter Inc. may have to close the Healthy Families program, which the 21-year-old said was instrumental in helping her thrive as a teenage mother.

      Gloria Jimenez worries that Shelter Inc. may have to close the Healthy Families program, which the 21-year-old said was instrumental in helping her thrive as a teenage mother.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • From left, Gloria Jimenez, Shelter Inc.'s director of development Carol Brown, and Shelter Associate Director Tom Eagan.

      From left, Gloria Jimenez, Shelter Inc.'s director of development Carol Brown, and Shelter Associate Director Tom Eagan.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Tom Eagan, associate director of Shelter Inc., in the Arlington Heights office.

      Tom Eagan, associate director of Shelter Inc., in the Arlington Heights office.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Shelter Inc., a child welfare agency in Arlington Heights, may have to discontinue its Healthy Families program due to the state budget stalemate.

      Shelter Inc., a child welfare agency in Arlington Heights, may have to discontinue its Healthy Families program due to the state budget stalemate.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 

Gloria Jimenez is proud of her life.

The 21-year-old graduated from high school and then got a certificate in early childhood education from Harper College, which she hopes will help her open her own day care.

She recently became a U.S. citizen. Her son is thriving in first grade at a local school.

As good as everything is now, it all seemed impossible just a few years ago. At 15, Jimenez was pregnant, scared and depressed about her future. Raised by her grandparents in Colombia, she had recently come to America and had a complicated relationship with her mother.

Now, the program that helped Jimenez get the resources to change her life is on the chopping block due to the state's ongoing budget impasse.

"We're quickly running out of money," said Tom Eagan, associate director of Shelter Inc., which will close the Healthy Families program in a month, if not sooner, without funding. "Fundraising is a real urgent priority right now."

Healthy Families, used in 40 other states, is funded in Illinois through the Illinois Department of Human Services, but with no state budget for eight months, the bills aren't getting paid.

Through the end of February, Shelter Inc. is owed $250,000 from the state for Healthy Families, Eagan said.

Healthy Families helps 140 families each year from Wheeling, Hanover, Schaumburg, Elk Grove and Palatine townships, about 70 percent of whom are young single mothers under the age of 24. Often, school nurses or local hospitals refer families with high-risk factors such as depression, financial trouble, isolation or a history of domestic violence to the voluntary, free program.

The support they get is extremely hands-on. For young mothers like Jimenez it included weekly home visits by social workers -- visits that continue for up to five years.

Her school nurse introduced Jimenez to Healthy Families when she was pregnant. They provided a social worker who visited her Mount Prospect home and her high school to make sure she was healthy, was keeping up with her studies, and had access to any resources she might need.

"She gave me the strength and the confidence I needed to know I could do this," Jimenez said of her social worker.

When her son was born, he was given toys and clothes his mother could not afford. Her social worker continued to visit and picked up signs of postpartum depression.

She made sure Jimenez got her homework done and that she could finish high school, often difficult for overwhelmed teen parents. She encouraged Jimenez to go to college and become a citizen, and helped her handle the daily obstacles that might have derailed her dreams.

"She did stuff that my parents didn't do for me," Jimenez said. "This program has been amazing for me. It makes you feel like you have a family."

Healthy Families has been a free service in the community for 20 years, said director Lynn Puckelwartz.

Their seven social workers -- four are bilingual -- bring curriculum, activities and resources to parents in need. That might mean directing families to area clinics for medical care, getting children screened for developmental disabilities, looking for signs of depression or domestic violence, and connecting the young adults with other social services, she said.

The weekly visits can continue for up to five years of the child's life.

"We know that the first few years are critical in a child's life and parents are their child's first teacher, so we are trying to support those first-time parents and guide them to a healthy life," Puckelwartz said.

Jimenez knows she would not be where she is today without the help.

"I would be a dropout. I wouldn't have made it through high school," Jimenez said. "It was overwhelming. When you have a kid at that age you don't know what to do. Everything that I have achieved right now, I wouldn't have it." Jimenez has graduated out of Healthy Families but hopes the program will survive to help other families.

"It would be devastating to think that it is no longer going to be there for the first-time parents who need this program," she said.

Shelter Inc. has set up a GoFundMe page where people can donate to help keep the Healthy Families program from closing its doors.

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