By Gypsy C. Gallardo, Contributor
ST. PETERSBURG – The University of South Florida Family St Petersburg’s Study Center is asking pastors, non-profit leaders and others to help find – of all things – 30 unmarried young mothers and fathers (in their second or third trimester of pregnancy) who want to become better “co-parents,” even if they are not romantically involved or ever intend to be.
If the request sounds strange, read on.
Over the past three years, south St. Petersburg has been the home of a very unique—and highly successful program—called Figuring It Out for the Child (FIOC), which is a 10 week mentoring, resource and referral program that works with single mothers and fathers together to provide family-strengthening supports from pregnancy through the baby’s first birthday.
Between 2012 and 2014, the center worked with nearly two dozen families (dads, moms and their babies mainly from south St. Petersburg) in a formal study that traced changes in parents’ communication styles, conflict resolution and – most importantly – quality involvement with their children.
Evaluators found that Figuring it Out for the Child not only reduced the frequency and intensity of conflict between moms and dads (for nearly three-quarters of families served), it dramatically increased fathers’ involvement in their child’s lives and noticeably reduced bouts of depression among single moms.
It was because of those early successes that FIOC won national attention as well as funding from the National Institute for Child and Health Development to work with as many as 150 families, between now and 2019.
But Dr. James McHale – who co-founded FIOC – said that he and the program staff urgently need the community’s help in order to reach the goal – especially this year’s goal, which is to begin service to and with 40 expectant dads and moms by the end of this July.
So far, FIOC has served only 10 of the families that staff aimed to support this year.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. If we’re going to continue demonstrating to our national partners that St. Petersburg wants this type of program available for our families, we must do a better job getting the word out, so all eligible families know we are here and connect with us to enroll so they can receive project benefits,” said McHale.
To date, the FIOC team has reached out to expectant parents mainly through health organizations such as the Next STEPP Pregnancy Center, Johnnie Ruth Clarke Women’s Health Center and the St. Pete Healthy Start Federal program run by All Children’s Hospital.
FIOC team member Dr. Chris Warren has also taken the program message on the road, visiting churches and community organizations that may know of parents who would qualify for the program.
In addition, program staff is on site weekly at Mt Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church and at the Health Department’s Women, Infants and Children site.
The key, said McHale, is the personal referral and “gentle push” of friends, family, pastors and social workers, especially for parents or soon-to-be-parents that are skeptical or cautious about programs that claim to want to help
“Parents seldom make it to see us without a supportive and involved loved one or friend who encourages them and reminds them to reach out. I think this is because it can seem overwhelming to a parent to reach out cold and make that first contact,” said McHale.
He implores everyone who knows and offers support to pregnant moms and dads (including family members) to tell them about FIOC and help guide them to contact us.
FIOC helps parents with transportation to and from project visits, as well as small stipends to cover their time commitment to the research project ($25 for dad and $25 for mom for the initial visit and $50 to $75 for each parent for two follow-up visits after new babies are born).
How to connect to FIOC
If you or someone you know is pregnant, single, and expecting your first child together with the baby’s other parent, McHale offers two ways to connect to FIOC:
“First, call our wonderful project recruiter, Mari Kittle. Her number is (727) 410-3935. She has met with and spoken with dozens of dads and moms over the past four years, and she can explain what we are all about like no one else.”
The second best way to be in touch, per McHale, is to call the Family Study Center directly at (727) 873-4848. Ask for Serina Lewis (who, coincidentally, is Mari’s daughter) or for the project coordinator, Warren.
“If you call after hours and don’t get someone, please definitely do leave a message that you are calling about the FIOC program, and Serina or Chris will call you back the next business day to answer your questions and to schedule a time when Mari can talk to and come meet with you,” McHale urged.