Family Connects North Carolina offers assistance that changes lives, nurturing new beginnings

BY TERI SAYLOR | CityView Magazine

Nurse Katie Fincher and Salena Williams were introduced through Family Connects North Carolina after the birth of Salena's daughter, Lyric.
Nurse Katie Fincher and Salena Williams were introduced through Family Connects North Carolina after the birth of Salena’s daughter, Lyric.

or Salena Williams of Eastover, welcoming the birth of her new baby girl on Sept. 6, 2022, after a difficult pregnancy was both happy and heartbreaking. Her husband had recently died after an illness, leaving her to care for her blended family of eight children and her newborn, Lyric.

Family Connects North Carolina was a godsend.

“I had to have a C-section, and was under a lot of stress and strain,” Salena said. “Family Connects provided a nurse to help me with my baby, and that literally saved me.

Nurse Katie and Salena help Salena's daughter, Lyric, into a swing at a park in Eastover. 

”Her nurse, Katie Fincher, was the only support Salena had during that low point in her life less than two years ago.

The local support program for new mothers is part of Family Connects International, “established in 2008 through a partnership with the Duke University Center for Child and Family Policy, the Center for Child & Family Health, and the Durham County Health Department,” according to Family Connects’ website. In 2022, “FCI launched as an independent nonprofit,” and today, it has a presence in 19 states.

In southeastern North Carolina, the regional organization was established as a pilot program in 2021, using federal funding through a preschool development grant. It covers three counties: Cumberland, Hoke, and Robeson. Administered through the child and family service nonprofit Partnership for Children of Cumberland County, Family Connects is a community in-home nurse visitation endeavor available to families with newborns.

Participating families receive up to 12 weeks of support, including in-home visits and telehealth calls by specially trained registered nurses provided through a partnership with Carolina Collaborative Community Care (4C).

Partnership for Children of Cumberland County began as a pioneer program under Smart Start, which the North Carolina legislature and former Gov. James B. Hunt established as a public-private initiative in 1993. It has matured into a respected organization with a successful track record of services that put children on a solid educational footing before they enter kindergarten. Its programs serve both families and childcare providers.

“Here in Cumberland County, we have a large per capita population of young families with children under 5,” said Sharon Moyer, community engagement administrator. “Those first five years are critical to both their mental and physical development — when babies learn to sit up, crawl, walk, run, and speak.”

In addition to Smart Start funding, the Partnership for Children of Cumberland County leverages other funding sources to support three focus areas: advancing children’s well-being, supporting early childhood care and education, and empowering families to both lift themselves up and find the support they need.

Family Connects partners with Cape Fear Valley Health System to identify new moms who may benefit from the services and assign nurses to visit them in their homes three weeks after they give birth. Services are offered to families at no cost and eligibility requires that mothers give birth at Cape Fear Valley Hospital and live in the program’s service area, according to Sharon.

“We have a high acceptance rate, consistently over 90%,” she said.

Jermonee Captain and daughter, Serenity. Jermonee calls her Family Connects nurse a dream.
Jermonee Captain and daughter, Serenity (PHOTOS: SHARILYN WELLS)

“Jermonee Captain was a first-time mother in 2022 after giving birth to her daughter Serenity. She calls her Family Connects nurse “a dream.”

She came to my house and made sure my baby was OK, and then she focused on me and asked if I was OK,” Jermonee said. “She made sure Serenity’s weight was where it should be and that she was latching and eating.”

Jermonee, who lives in Fayetteville, learned about the program while she was in the hospital and had heard it was helpful for anyone vulnerable to postpartum depression. While Family Connects doesn’t provide mental health counseling, it does help connect mothers to those services.

“Depression runs in my family, and I wanted to make sure I got off to the right start before getting too deep into motherhood,” she said.

Jermonee, who works the night shift stocking shelves at Walmart, also relies on her own mother for help. She said her nurse counseled her about how to cope when her baby cries, seemingly nonstop.

“My nurse gave me permission to be human and she explained crying is normal behavior for babies, and that’s how they communicate,” Jermonee said. “She reminded me that I was a new mom, and she encouraged me to treat myself with kindness.”

Jermonee is paying it forward, telling other new moms about her experiences whenever she gets a chance.

“Today, I am much more confident, and I believe I am a fantastic mom,” she said. “My baby is healthy, walking, talking, and thriving.”

Jermonee Captain and daughter, Serenity. Jermonee calls her Family Connects nurse a dream.
Jermonee Captain and daughter, Serenity play at Mazarick Park, 17, March 2024

That is music to Mary Sonnenberg’s ears. Mary is president of the Partnership for Children of Cumberland County and has made it her life’s work to get kids off to a good start in life.

“Family Connects is important because it touches families from the very beginning,” she said. “In addition to providing direct services, we offer resources to help families with many needs. I call that our secret sauce.”

According to data from randomized control trials conducted by Family Connects, the program has a profound impact. In particular, the program points to between a 37% and 50% “reduction in infants visiting the emergency room for medical care and overnight hospital stays” during the first two years of their lives, and “a 39% reduction in child abuse and maltreatment investigations” in the first five years of their lives.

Today, the Partnership for Children of Cumberland County is in fundraising mode for its Family Connects program. The program was implemented through local, state, and federal funding starting in 2020, though the federal preschool development grant, awarded in 2021, will expire in June 2024.

“We have the potential to change the trajectory for children for the rest of their lives and their families’ lives, and in that way, we make a positive impact on the communities we serve.”

– Mary Sonnenberg, President of the Partnership for Children of Cumberland County

Mary said the organization is seeking funding from “local, regional, and state funders,” and local government appropriations to keep it going as is.

“We put some Smart Start money into the program, and we have enough to run it through June 30, [2024],” she said. “We have a pretty big funding gap, and we are taking a hard look at what parts of it we can sustain.”

She views it as one of the most impactful programs Partnership for Children of Cumberland County offers.

“We have the potential to change the trajectory for children for the rest of their lives and their families’ lives, and in that way, we make a positive impact on the communities we serve,” she said.

For Katie — the nurse who assisted Salena after she gave birth — serving as a Family Connects home health care professional is a dream job.

“Just to talk to new moms about their experiences and make a connection with them is so rewarding, whether it is helping them get their postpartum obstetric appointments scheduled, setting them up with a pediatrician, or connecting them to other services they need,” she said.

Salena doesn’t shy away from talking about the dire situation in which she found herself when she met Katie and calls her “an angel on earth.”

“Ms. Katie played a big role in my life and had a positive impact on my entire family,” Salena said. “We were going through one of the roughest times in our lives, and she came across as a caring aunt who did so much for us, and my kids always looked forward to her visits.”

For Katie, it was all in a day’s work.

“I would say we are nurses with heart,” she said. “Whether our patients are new or experienced moms, each birth is different, and we are there to support them.”

Today, Salena and her family are pushing forward with their lives and progressing in various ways. As a small business owner who runs a cleaning service, she has since moved into a new home. In addition to her children, who range in age from 18 months to 23 years, she cares for two grandchildren who are toddlers. She said Lyric is thriving and developing an outsized personality.

“Lyric is little and petite, but she packs a personality like you would not believe,” Salena said. “She is just a bright shiny star, and I don’t know how we would have gotten over my husband’s death without her.”
Salena would encourage other new moms to tap into available support services like Family Connects.

“A lot of times women are scared to ask for help because it makes us seem weak or that we can’t parent correctly,” she said. “But the best thing you can do for yourself, and your family, is to let people in and tell them about your story.”

This work is funded in part by the Elizabeth A. Hudspeth Endowment Fund of the Cumberland Community Foundation and the North Carolina Partnership for Children. The program is a collaboration between the Partnership for Children of Cumberland County, the Hoke County Partnership for Children and Families, the Robeson County Partnership for Children, Family Connects International, and our nursing partner, Carolina Collaborative Community Care (4C).