Addressing Pandemic Needs

Help Me Grow: A Model to Advance Equity

By: Paul H. Dworkin, MD

At a time of momentous societal change, we are mindful now more than ever of the importance of ensuring that those who are most in need have access to programs, services and resources that will help them thrive. Equity served as a key theme of the 11th Annual Help Me Grow Forum, which we held virtually for the first time in August.

The Forum occurred as we fight two public health crises: COVID-19 and racial injustice.

At the Help Me Grow National Center, we continue to pivot our work to address the longstanding social, environmental and behavioral factors that have a profound impact on children’s health, development and well-being. We also view all of our work through the lens of racial and social justice, which is especially critical in our current climate featuring worldwide calls for societal change.

Embracing Targeted Universalism

At the Forum, we renewed our longstanding commitment of the Help Me Grow Model to advance equity for all families, especially for those who are most at-risk of falling behind typical academic, developmental and behavioral standards. The Model does this through its premise of targeted universalism, which recognizes that those with the greatest need must derive the greatest benefits from available programs, services and funding streams. The Model has a tremendous impact on those who reside in urban cores and remote rural areas, by connecting underserved children and families to existing community-based services and following up to ensure families found such services to be helpful. Current calls for racial and social justice, amplified by recent tragic events, have strengthened our resolve to overcome barriers and ensure facilitated access to critical resources for those who are so adversely impacted by social, environmental, and behavioral factors as a consequence of prejudice and racism.

During the Forum, we asked participants to keep the following two key questions in mind:

  • Is the Help Me Grow focus on strengthening families’ protective factors, including providing concrete support in times of need, sufficient to ensure we address families’ basic needs?
  • Does the Help Me Grow Model adequately advance equity for all families by applying an approach of targeted universalism?

Prescription for Progress

We were honored to have Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD return to the Forum for a keynote question and answer session, after delivering an inspiring keynote address at our 10th Annual Help Me Grow Forum in Buffalo, New York last year. Dr. Hanna-Attisha is the physician who uncovered the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which exposed a vast number of urban children and families to lead contamination through their drinking water. After recovering herself from a COVID-19 infection, Hanna-Attisha has played a key role in further advocating for children during the pandemic and has been an outspoken activist during the ongoing racial justice movement.

During the session, I was struck by the similarities that Hanna-Attisha draws between the Flint crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. “Flint is recovering from our last preventable public health crisis and now we’re rattled by this other public health crisis, also preventable,” she said.

She noted how the disparities among those affected by each crisis are similar, with people of color being the most severely affected. She talked about how the lessons learned in Michigan after the water crisis are now the same lessons the nation is learning from COVID-19 – that we need a strong investment in public health, we must recognize the importance of disparities and injustices, and we must respect science.

Hanna-Attisha encouraged participants to advocate for change, with her best prescription for progress being living wage jobs for parents, with paid leave and healthcare benefits that are not tied to employment. She also called for a return to in-person school so children can access an education and proper nutrition. She pointed out how ensuring food security and providing health insurance that is not linked to employment are not innovative concepts, but are instead standard in many other countries.

Hanna-Attisha encouraged Forum participants to advocate for change that will bring about equity in society by voting, writing opinion articles, and mobilizing friends through social media. She stated that we must take action when we see an injustice, and acknowledged she was hesitant to speak out during the Flint water crisis, but is so pleased that she did because nothing would have changed if she hadn’t.

Her words still stay with me: “Never doubt that you have the power to make a difference.” Hanna-Attisha echoed these sentiments in a recently published Op-Ed in the New York Times.

Additional Forum Highlights

The Forum also featured breakout sessions with our affiliates highlighting their best practices for child health provider outreach, strategies to connect with families of unique villages, and the value of parent leadership within HMG affiliates. The Forum also included our annual HMG National Center Update and a session from the Bridgespan Group, which is working with the HMG National Center to develop a strategic plan to take our work to the next level.

All of the sessions were informative and inspiring, and helped HMG National Center team members and our affiliates from across the country set priorities for the upcoming year.

Help Me Grow Future

The Forum has energized us to continue advancing the Help Me Grow Model into new states, as well as expanding in states that are already utilizing the Model. In response to the questions I posed at the start of the Forum, we are confident that our approach to strengthen families’ protective factors so they can better handle life’s challenges is a valid one. We are also confident that our use of targeted universalism is strong in advancing equity for children and families most in need.

Learn more about the Help Me Grow National Center, which is part of Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health.

As we look toward the future of Help Me Grow, we must strive to frame our work and our perspective in a way that is hopeful and optimistic. A return to normal is not possible, as we know the substantial limitations of doing so. However, there is so much promise for the future as part of a new normal.

Our hope and optimism is perhaps best captured through the lyrics of Billy Joel’s song Keeping the Faith – “The good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”

Paul H. Dworkin, MD is executive vice president for community child health at Connecticut Children’s, director of Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health and founding director of Help Me Grow National Center. Dr. Dworkin is also a professor of pediatrics at UConn School of Medicine.  Learn more »

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