The more researchers learn about the earliest years of a child’s development, the more they see how important those years are to the long-term development of a child. The Healthy Futures program in Northern Michigan was created to make sure those earliest years, specifically the first two years, are as good as they can be for babies throughout the region. In the 20 years since Healthy Futures began, the program has served 25,000 children.

The Healthy Futures mission is simple but also ambitious: in its service area, connect every family with a newborn to the resources they need to keep the baby healthy and developing, with an emphasis on encouraging breastfeeding, increasing immunization rates and accessing resources. The connection to the family begins right at the start, either prior to birth or in the hospital at birth. The family meets a public health nurse, who will visit their house once they are home from the hospital to answer questions about being a new parent and to offer connections to other services in the community as needed.

“The nurses are coordinating and linking, coordinating and linking,” explains Betsy Hardy, manager for women and children services for Munson Healthcare. The team does not create programming, but instead identifies needs and connects families to appropriate programs in their surrounding community. “For example, we don’t do playgroups, but we connect families to playgroups,” she says. After the nurse’s home visit, a visit in which the nurse will offer advice on breastfeeding, Healthy Futures will stay in touch with the newborn’s family through phone calls, texts and newsletters.

The results, Hardy says, can be seen in the numbers. Within the Healthy Futures participants, 68 percent are breastfeeding at two months, while the regional average is 50 percent breastfeeding at two months. Likewise with immunizations: 85 percent of Healthy Futures children are current with their immunizations at two years compared with 68 percent as a statewide average.

In November 2016, Healthy Futures expanded to Grayling, which has had remarkable results with its own similar program. “We merged best practices with them and we are both stronger now,” Hardy says. “The hospital in Grayling is a very special place. The staff is super connected to their community.” One bit of proof: 95 percent of newborns are enrolled in the Healthy Futures Program. “It’s all about relationships,” Hardy says.

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Photo(s) by Michael Poehlman