UWPRC staff recently spoke with Sara Flugum, the Director of Early Childhood Programs at RISE, to talk about how the organization has responded to the challenges of delivering early childhood and mental health programs to children and families during the COVID-19 pandemic.
RISE, formed from a merger in 2017, brought together two Dane County non-profit organizations, Community Partnerships, Inc. and Center for Families, focused on delivering community-connected and family-centered services. The mission of RISE is to advance the wellness of children, individuals, and families by providing early childhood and mental health services to help communities and families thrive.
Meeting Families and Children Where They’re At
The programs RISE offers cover children from birth through adolescence and support their families who need early childhood and home visiting programs, care coordination, mental health services, and respite care. RISE early childhood and home visiting programs include the Early Childhood Initiative, ParentChild+, and Welcome Baby & Beyond. RISE also offers care coordination and mental health programs including Children Come First, Comprehensive Community Services, and Court Ordered Evaluations. They also run the Respite Center for families in need of scheduled and emergency child care, support, and resources for children ages 0 -14. You can learn more about each program on the RISE website at risewisconsin.org
All programs at RISE center the needs and voices of families so RISE staff can best assess and respond to the needs of families to help them thrive. RISE uses an approach to “meet families where they’re at” according to Sara Flugum. This means authentically listening and responding to the needs of families first rather than prescribing programs or services in a one-size-fits-all approach. In addition to centering the needs of families in their approach, RISE uses a wrap-around approach to support families. For example, mental health services address how a child’s wellbeing is impacted by their home environment, school environment, and their community. These key components of centering families and using a wrap-around approach allow RISE to best help families and communities thrive.
Supporting Families Amidst a Pandemic
Meeting with children one on one, conducting in-person evaluations, and providing services in families’ homes is an important part of how RISE delivers programs. Staff quite literally meet clients where they’re at: in their homes. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, RISE had to evaluate how each program could still deliver the support and services families need. The staff began by reassuring families that while they wouldn’t meet in-person, the staff were all still there to support them. Sara said, “there has not been one program at our agency that hasn’t figured it out and put the energy into making sure families had access to resources.”
Before the “Safer at Home” order, RISE had never delivered programs and services virtually. Staff had to quickly get creative to make sure everyone had the technology staff and families needed to connect virtually. For families using mental health services, staff had to figure out how to ensure all services now being offered through telehealth would still be billable. While the mode of delivery change, all services were still being family-driven. Sara shared a story about one staff member who was on the phone with a child who wanted to play hide and seek. So of course, the child put the phone in a drawer and the staff member just had to patiently wait to be found!
Respite Center has also navigated beautifully the unique challenge of adjusting for COVID. Suddenly, what had been a 24-hour respite and emergency childcare program that served multiple families simultaneously had to shift to follow recommendations around the pandemic. Unlike most childcare spaces, Respite typically has children from many different families coming and going from the center with a great deal of cross-over between children and staff. Continuing to operate in this way during the pandemic was not safe for families or staff and so the Respite Center team, after almost 41 years of functioning in one way, had to think hard and adjust quickly to continue to offer some semblance of in-person respite support to families. And so they did. Though capacity is limited as compared to pre-COVID operations, the team has figured out how to remain available for emergencies and designed a schedule that allows for supportive care and safe interactions and transitions with families.
Continuing to Help Families Thrive
Once families were contacted and had received all the technology they needed to stay connected, RISE still needed to figure out how they could sustain programs that are typically delivered in-person. RISE staff revisited the core mission and desired outcomes for each program and asked themselves “how can we adapt these programs to achieve the core purpose of this program?” Staff had to get creative and translate activities to work online or over the phone while also addressing barriers for families to stay engaged. For some families, moving online is working to meet their needs better than in-person delivery. The challenges and creative solutions RISE is using to stay connected are already beginning to inform the plans RISE will have when Dane County begins to open.
Before the pandemic, RISE was an organization that delivered evidence-based mental health and early education programs to families in their homes and communities. Throughout the pandemic, they have adapted to continue helping families and communities thrive by adapting all of their programs to be online. The UWPRC is proud to partner with such a creative, family-focused, and mission-driven organization.