Everyday, the Healthy Start Coalition empowers and assists local moms to be the best parent they can be.
Dixie Morgese experiences a lot of emotional moments at her job as executive director of Healthy Start of Flagler and Volusia. She recalls one in particular she had while shadowing her employees while they evaluated the new patients, a 22-year-old woman who had grown up in the foster care system and was pregnant with her third child.
“One of the questions we always ask is ‘What are your strengths to help you through this pregnancy?’” she said. “I remember her saying ‘I don’t have any strength.’ Our employee told ’You have so much strength. You’ve gone through childbirth and raised children.’ The mom cried and said ‘No one has ever called me strong before.’ Who was going to tell her how to be a mom when she didn’t have one herself?”
Thankfully for the new mom, Healthy Start was there to provide guidance and assistance with all aspects of pregnancy and new motherhood. When Morgese was pregnant with her first child, she wasn’t so lucky.
Before she became a mom, Morgese got caught up in a life of drugs and alcohol that continued after it stopped being fun. She sought treatment and has been in recovery for 28 years.
“I experienced a lot of different things,” she said. “I experienced postpartum depression, and I had moved here from where all my family was, so I was alone. I’ll always joke about the day I walked out of the hospital I thought ‘Wow they’re letting me leave with this baby.’ All new parents are terrified.”
She said her experience with addiction has helped her have a nonjudgmental perspective when dealing with moms in recovery or still working through addiction.
“The biggest change you’ll go through in your life is having a child,” she said. “I see young moms who get pregnant, and all of a sudden their life is going to change very quickly. I’m very active in 12 step programs, and I see women all the time in there who are pregnant or that have children. It’s not the child’s fault that’s mom is addicted, but the child is the one who’s experiencing the grunt of it.”
One of the many Healthy Start programs and initiatives is to lower the use of drugs and alcohol in moms in the state — which is currently at an all time high rate for substance abuse among pregnant women. However tragic, Morgese says the worst thing we can do is cast judgement.
“It’s real easy to judge, but let’s help them instead,” she said. “If anything, judging just makes them go further into the shadows. It makes them feel worse about their circumstances as opposed to knocking on a door and saying ‘Hey I’m about to be a parent and my life is a mess. I need help.’
Though any mom could get services from Healthy Start, Morgese says they prioritize their patients through a screening process to determine who’s circumstances put them at the most risk of having an unhealthy pregnancy. Factors like age, weight, alcohol use, domestic abuse and poverty can put women at the top of the list. After the screening process, the organization sends a letter to the moms making them aware of their services.
“All new parents are terrified,” she said. “You’re elated, excited, terrified, awestruck, all these emotions come at you at one time, and depending on your circumstances, you might need a lot of help. When I saw Healthy Start, I remember thinking ‘Wow, I wish I had that. I wish that I had somebody to stand by me, help me, validate me if I was doing the right thing or not doing the right thing.’”
Though the organization provides a lot of services for women, men and infants, Morgese doesn’t want all the credit. She says her organization doesn’t act alone in helping the local people in need.
“The Junior League throws two baby showers a year,” she said. “The United Way’s Women Initiative gave us the money to give women gas cards or bus passes to get to appointments. It takes a whole community. No one agency does this alone.
Coming up on Healthy Start’s 25th anniversary, Morgese said she’s taken time to really be grateful for what she gets to do for a living.
“I feel lucky I have a job I love. When I wear my Healthy Start shirt, parents I don’t even know will put their kid right in front of me and say ‘He’s a healthy start baby!’ What a gift in life when what you do is a legacy that affects generations to come even if people never knew you.”
For more information on Healthy Start visit www.healthystartfv.org/.