Jessica (who preferred not to use her last name), Barre, is a single parent of five young children. When she gave birth to twins by emergency C-section, she had a 2-year old at home and no local support system. The doula project in Barre recommended she reach out to Good Beginnings of Central Vermont, which conducts a postpartum angel’s program to assist families of newborn children and provides resources and support in this crucial time of families’ lives.
Jessica matched with volunteer Susan McKnight. “She ended up being one of my major support systems,” Jessica said. “Having someone to listen, help, to be there to support in however I needed was wonderful.” McKnight visited Jessica’s home weekly for 12 weeks and helped around the house, brought food and entertained the toddler while Jessica was busy with her infant twins. McKnight, Warren, would also watch the kids while Jessica took a shower or a much-needed nap. Jessica talked about the value of “having a friend, another adult you can talk to. It made a huge difference. For parents, it’s definitely an asset.”
Good Beginnings, based in Montpelier, has served families throughout central Vermont since 1990, when parents founded the program from their homes in Northfield. It has expanded to include between 70-80 volunteers. Before the pandemic, Good Beginnings typically matched 90-100 families with a postpartum angel each year. Over the past two years, many families (which include children too young to be vaccinated) and volunteers chose to pause their participation. In 2021, the program matched 42 families with postpartum angel volunteers.
UPTICK IN INTEREST
“But starting last fall, we are seeing a real uptick in interest and expect to be back to serving approximately 90 families a year again in 2022,” said executive director Gretchen Elias.
“Being isolated with a newborn during COVID is really, really hard,” program director Hayley Fitzgerald said.
McKnight has been volunteering with Good Beginnings for three years. When she retired as minister at Warren United Church of Christ, she found herself with more time on her hands. She knew someone who had had a difficult postpartum period and used Good Beginnings’ services. When McKnight had her own, now-grown children, “I did not have that kind of support in place. I went through a really tough time.”
She has worked with five families, including Jessica’s, though three of those families have been during COVID and meetings were exclusively virtual, which was mostly listening, offering support and suggesting resources. With the families she’s worked with in-person, she’s helped by bringing food, accompanying the parent to doctor’s visits and school meetings, doing light housework and “whatever’s helpful.” Although their time working together has concluded, Jessica said McKnight still reaches out to her to check in.
Tyne Pike-Sprenger, Fayston, had her second child in March 2019 and had heard about the program through a friend. Even though she knew about a lot of local resources such as parent groups, “It was a really challenging time adjusting to having two kids.” Good Beginnings matched her with Julie Westervelt. Westervelt, Warren, has volunteered as a postpartum angel for five or six years. She saw an ad in the paper and, as a mother of two teenagers (at the time), “I could relate to needing the help. I thought it would be a great way to give back.” Westervelt and her family were living abroad when her first child was born, so she didn’t have a lot of support as a new mom. The family then relocated to rural settings when their children were young. “I know what it’s like to be very isolated, having no adults to talk to. It can be very hard on a new mother.”
Westervelt helped Pike-Sprenger by holding the baby so the mom could play with her toddler. The young mother said the highlight of her summer was getting to swim with her son while Westervelt watched the baby on the shore. “She holds a special place in our family,” she said. She wants new parents to know of this free resource. “This program is available to anyone.”
Westervelt stressed that the program is not a babysitting service, but a resource for new parents to have someone to check in on them, answer their questions and offer support.
“We definitely spend a chunk of time each visit just talking about parenting, their needs, their kids, answering questions. It’s very helpful to have an extra set of hands,” she said.
Many young families don’t have family members nearby or other support systems as they adjust to their new life and prepare to return to work. “To have a little break or someone to talk to” is important, she said. She also called the experience “rewarding as a volunteer, a great way to connect with families in the area and get to watch kids grow up. I love it.”
For anyone interested in volunteering with Good Beginnings, “It’s a great way to connect and to offer simple kinds of support to somebody that really needs it,” McKnight said. “It fills a real need, especially during COVID, when the need is even greater due to more isolation.” Fitzgerald said Good Beginnings is always looking to add more volunteers.
Those interested in volunteering can fill out a form at www.goodbeginningscentralvt.org/volunteer-with-us/. Families looking for a postpartum angel or resources can find them at www.goodbeginningscentralvt.org/for-families/.