Giving Thought: A helping hand for new parents from Aspen to Parachute

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

Being a good parent is arguably the most important job one might ever have but, unfortunately, babies don’t come with instructions or training manuals.

For more than three decades, Glenwood Springs-based Family Visitor Programs has assisted new moms and dads with in-person visits from nurses and other trained professionals to inform, coach and answer questions about everything from labor and delivery to breast-feeding, diaper rash and childhood brain development. Sandy Swanson, who led this vital nonprofit for most of its life, recently retired and handed the reins to another dedicated individual, Andrew Romanoff.

Romanoff’s background includes an eight-year stint as a state legislator (including shorter turns as a Democratic minority leader and Speaker of the House) and a four-year period leading the advocacy group Mental Health Colorado. Interestingly, both of those experiences led Romanoff to take a job strengthening families and supporting parents from pregnancy to age three.

“If you wait until someone with a mental health illness is in an emergency room, a jail cell or, God forbid, a cemetery, then you’ve waited too long,” he said.

In other words, early intervention is better. And what’s true in the mental health world is also true with children. If a child is loved and supported from day one, then his or her chances at a happy and successful life increase dramatically. When at-risk families benefit from the coaching of a nurse between pregnancy and year three, amazing things happen: incidents of child abuse and neglect drop, language acquisition improves, and behavioral/intellectual problems decrease.

“The more guidance and support you get during pregnancy and during the first few months of life, the better chance you have to improve the wellness of your kid and yourself,” Romanoff said. “That’s not to short-change all the other things we can do later down the road in adolescence or beyond, but I do believe earlier is better.”

Of course, Family Visitor Programs is strictly voluntary and families with newborns are typically busy and distracted. Convincing a young family to invite a family visitor into the home can be a hard sell. In 2020, the program served 300 families out of an estimated 4,000 potential ones between Aspen and Parachute.

Romanoff hopes to triple that number through a series of tweaks. And since a fair number of families are presenting with mental health risks, Romanoff said, he would like also to hire a therapist to come along on home visits.

Romanoff’s work as a legislator instilled a public-policy, big-picture view of things, so when he looks at this organization with a $1.6 million annual budget, he wonders not only how many more families can he reach, but how deep can he go with each individual family? He’s full of ideas to increase the number of referrals the program receives from hospitals, obstetricians and other health-care providers, convert more of those referrals into actual clients, and retain those clients as long as possible, ideally from pregnancy all the way to age two or three.

“Maybe it’s a product of my experience in the legislature, where you only have a two-year term and 120 days in the legislative session to get stuff done,” he said, “but what keeps me up at night and drives me to work in the morning is this: the window in which we’re trying to intervene is so narrow. I don’t want to wait.”

He’s moving fast nowadays, back and forth from his new home in Garfield County, meeting with Family Visitor staff members, partners from other organizations and, of course, supporters and donors.

“I joined this organization and the pitch I’ll make to the donors we’re trying to recruit is, ‘if you want to make a difference in the life of a kid, the single biggest impact you’re going to see will come at the earliest possible stage,'” he said.

If you care about the next generation of kids — who, of course, will run our society before too long — that’s a powerful proposition.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.