Partners for Families

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“People always talk about making a difference,” says Lauren Schenker Wolfson C’98, “and I feel that I really am. When people ask me what I do, I have this amazing thing I get to tell them.”

As project coordinator for the Nurse-Family Partnership’s office in the Bronx, Wolfson helps provide first-time mothers with in-home nursing care they wouldn’t normally receive. Another Penn alumna, Mary Joan Murphy Nu’97 GNu’98, serves as director of the borough’s program, supervising its nurses and planning its outreach strategies. (And still another alumna, Lisa Landau C’83, runs the program for New York City at large.)

Take, for example, the mom who was a product of the foster-care system and living in a shelter with her newborn son when she joined the program last May. With help from her visiting nurse, the woman secured her own apartment and got a job working for the New York Police Department as a school security guard. “That’s a huge amount of success in nine months,” Murphy notes.

Another patient had immigrated to the United States from Guinea at age 17. Though the woman spoke very little English, one of Murphy’s nurses helped her obtain her GED, and she now plans to attend nursing school as soon as she can.

The program accepts only low-income, first-time moms who are fewer than 28 weeks pregnant, and offers them free at-home nurse visits until their babies turn two. Visiting nurses counsel their patients weekly and prepare lessons on everything from guidance on diet and exercise to information about breastfeeding, infant states and behavior, the signs of pre-term labor, and how moms can best bond with their babies. Nurses also teach moms and moms-to-be how they can go back to school, receive job training, and search for employment.

“A big part of nursing is teaching,” Murphy explains, “so each home visit has a teaching lesson and a homework assignment to help the moms learn all the information they need to know.”

Though neither entered the nursing field right away, both Wolfson and Murphy say living in West Philadelphia drew their attention to disadvantaged populations.

As a psychology major at Penn, Wolfson worked at a West Philadelphia daycare center—an experience she says made her aware of the difficulties many impoverished children face. Wolfson further observed these class discrepancies in Baltimore while earning her master’s of health degree from Johns Hopkins University.

“I’ve always been interested in children’s health, especially in underserved populations,” she explains. “I was looking at how access to medical care stratifies by race and socioeconomic status and wanted to do something about it.”

Murphy’s interest in helping disadvantaged populations was kindled during a volunteer teaching experience in Belize after she graduated from Penn and intensified when she enrolled in Penn’s MSN program. She became increasingly aware of a class-based healthcare gap while performing her clinical rotations at HUP and CHOP, she explains, since she worked “mostly with the populations of West Philly that tend to be poor.”

Murphy was eventually drawn to the Nurse-Family Partnership, which reaches out to the demographic most at risk for premature births and pregnancy complications.

“The program is empowering these moms to learn to advocate for themselves and their babies,” Wolfson says. “They learn to make decisions, set goals, and achieve those goals.”

According to Murphy, these goal-oriented techniques are an essential part of the program, since “a lot of these girls have never been taught how to make goals and create steps to accomplish them. This program has really proven its success in [creating] long-term effects.”

And for several hundred Bronx women, the program offers a chance to break a deeply ingrained cycle, Murphy notes: “It’s been proven that if a woman has a child when she’s a teenager and she’s poor to begin with, it’s really hard to get out of that socioeconomic level. [This program] makes a huge impact in breaking the poverty cycle.”

—Molly Petrilla C’06

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