HOPEWELL, Va. -- More than a year after the pandemic began, COVID-19 was continuing to take a toll on vulnerable families with young children.
Diane Varner, Executive Director of Hopewell/Prince George Healthy Families, said over the last year, teen pregnancies had doubled in their program, and for a while, half of the referrals they were receiving were for substance-exposed babies.
"There are things that people don't think about with substance-exposed children, such as sensory issues," said Varner. "And so, imagine that you're in a pandemic, you have a child with these issues, and you have nowhere to go."
Varner said since 1999, their in-home visitation program had offered support for high-risk families, focusing on child abuse and neglect prevention services.
"We do that by hopefully meeting mom when she's prenatal," said Varner. "And then we work with them intensively for the next three to five years."
Right now, Varner said they have 48 families in their program.
She said even as the pandemic seemed to be getting better, families continued to struggle mentally with the transition back to normalcy.
"Now we're in a spot where all of a sudden, hey, masks off, everything's great. And while everybody wants their children to go back to school, that's a big transition to all of a sudden, boom, everything's back to normal," said Varner.
She added that help was available for those who needed it, even for those who didn't qualify for their program.
"We're there for anybody that's got children, we will guide you the best way we can. And so just reach out," said Varner.
Constance Gray had been part of the program for four years, referred by VCU, before giving birth to premature twins.
"They were in the hospital for 89 days," said Gray. "I had them at 26 weeks. They were one pound, 14 ounces each. So, they were very small. Like, hold ‘em in your hand small."
Gray said she spent a month in the hospital before their birth, away from her husband and other two children. Then had to leave without them.
Even when the twins finally did come home Gray said her daughter Bryce was still on oxygen. Four years later, Gray said overall the twins were healthy but still had some developmental struggles.
"If you look at them, they're a little bit shorter than most kids. Speech-wise, they're still behind. So, we are doing like speech therapy," Gray said.
But Gray said the speech therapy came to a stop when COVID-19 hit. Gray said she became not only a mom of four but a teacher too.
Through it all, she said she was thankful to have had a little help from Hopewell Prince George Healthy families.
"If I needed food or if I needed toilet paper or anything like that, it was, 'hey call and we'll come drop it off on the porch,'" said Gray. "It was just a support of somebody to talk to make sure I'm doing okay."
Before the birth of her twins, Gray had been referred by VCU to Hopewell Prince George Healthy Families. She said the program had been a huge help to her, and recommended families in need reach out.
Varner said they had recently applied for a grant and were hoping to expand their program and double their staff to serve double the families.