Silver City's First Born program supports parents' dreams for their children.
Story and photos by Harry Williamson
Designed to help first-time families achieve success with their babies, the First Born Program arrived in Silver City in the fall of 1997.
Enjoying some holiday fun are, from left: Vicki Johnson, First Born founder and president; Thomas Clay; Pat Gutierrez; and Amanda Medina, who was in First Born with Thomas, now 12, and has again entered the program as she prepares for the birth of Gutierrez' first child.
It was just in time for Melissa Sheldon.
"My husband and I had been trying to have a baby for five years, and now I had one I wanted to leave on somebody's doorstep," Sheldon says.
After her daughter Nicole's birth, Sheldon found herself mired in postpartum depression, deepened by a maelstrom of hormones and chemicals, along with signs of early-stage diabetes. After returning home from the hospital, she wanted only to sleep. Her husband was often gone working shifts at the mines. She had no nearby family members. She locked herself away from friends. She almost stopped eating, making half a turkey sandwich last for four days.
Suicidal thoughts persisted for months, of how and where she would kill herself.
She recalls that she didn't laugh for more than a year. "I have a loud laugh," Sheldon says. "The first time I did laugh, it scared my daughter and she started to cry. She thought I had hurt myself."
She goes on, "I didn't have a good upbringing. I was abused and my step-dad beat me. I was so scared that I that I would continue the same pattern. I didn't think I would ever be abusive to my daughter, but I knew I didn't have any parenting techniques. Finally, I decided I didn't deserve Nicole. I'd just leave her on some doorstep."
During this time, Vicki Johnson, the founder of the First Born Program, began her Monday visits.
"Vicki was the one person I didn't turn away. She had such a kind way, so positive and giving," Sheldon says. "Without her I would have been lost."
Johnson says that First Born is like having a really good friend drop by every week to just sit and talk for 45 minutes. "After there was some trust between us, I started asking Melissa about her hopes and dreams for the baby," she says. "I said if you had a magic wand, tell me about her at age 16. She talked about things like the child will stay in school, be healthy, have really good friends, have a good relationship with her. My answer to Melissa was, 'Why not, why not?'"
What First Born does, Johnson explains, is support the parents' dreams in every way possible, finding out what kind of information they need, what kind of assessments, what type of referrals, what questions they need answered, what problems solved.
"At first all you do is sit and listen," Johnson says. "How many of us in our lifetimes have someone who totally holds that time open just for us, concentrating only on what we say, what we want to have happen? Then helping us to achieve it."
Johnson says she got the idea for First Born in the 1980s in Kalamazoo, Mich., when she was working as a therapist for families with toddlers and young children. "I started to realize the parents I was seeing wouldn't need counseling if someone had taught them basic prevention strategies earlier in their child's life. Why were we waiting for families to be in trouble before offering support?"
She says these thoughts became more focused on her other job — counseling women who were parenting and had a diagnosis of mental illness.
"Why did these women need to be diagnosed with a mental disability in order to receive parenting services?" Johnson asked at the time. "I thought any family should be able to get these services without first needing to be labeled and stigmatized."
From these experiences she and her husband, pediatrician Dr. Donald Johnson, began to design First Born to be offered to women who were pregnant for the first time and families parenting for the first time. They decided it made economic sense to focus on first borns — about 60% of all newborns — since later children would also benefit from these services. Vicki Johnson's master's degree thesis became the basis of the program's core curriculum.
She and her husband were planning to move from Michigan, looking for a new home "on the left side of the map's centerfold," finally deciding on Grant County. Once here, she developed a First Born demonstration project with Gila Regional Medical Center's Outpatient Department.
One of the first clients was Melissa Sheldon. But nine months later the Sheldon family moved away. Johnson wasn't sure there had been enough time to help.
It turned out that nine months of visits every Monday had, indeed, made an impact. When the family returned to the area more than 10 years later, now with a second child — a boy, 10-year-old Austin — one of the first things Sheldon did was call Vicki Johnson.
"I told her I had thought about her almost every day I had been gone," Sheldon says. "I wanted to thank her once against for helping me get my life going in the direction I wanted."
Johnson says she knew at the time what she was doing was important. She just didn't know exactly how important.
"What we think is happening, really is happening, and it's not just the time we are there in the house," Johnson says. "The quote you hear all the time is that the first three years of a child's life last forever. Melissa is a perfect example of that."
Sheldon's daughter Nicole, now 13, is a straight-A student in junior high school. She sang the national anthem on three days at this year's Grant County Fair, and is scheduled to perform every day at the 2011 fair. Nicole is now trying to decide if she wants to be a veterinarian or a Christian singer.
In trying to explain what the nine caregivers currently working at First Born do for the first-time mothers, Johnson recalls how once, while on a home visit the mother introduced her to a neighbor as, "This is my home visitor, Vicki." The neighbor asked what a "home visitor" was. Johnson says the mother paused for a moment, and then replied. "Well, she's sort of a teacher. She's sort of a counselor. She's sort of a friend. But mostly she's someone we look forward to seeing each week."