Network of the Heart

By Brad McEwen

A quick Bing or Google search of Phoebe’s Network of Trust quickly reveals that the local initiative is a “teen parenting program,” aimed at helping young mothers stay in school while maintaining a healthy pregnancy.

While that brief descriptor certainly covers an important part of the Network of Trust’s activities, it woefully under-represents the full scope of the Phoebe-based program and the enormous impact Network of Trust is having on our community in a myriad of ways.

It also doesn’t reveal the true motivation of the organization that’s committed to changing lives throughout Albany-Dougherty County and the surrounding region any way it can.

After spending nearly two hours with Executive Director Angie Barber and other members of the Network of Trust team learning about the multiple activities the organization is involved with, I’ve decided a more apt way to describe the program is to say it’s a conduit of sorts, a network of hearts, if you will, pulling together varied resources to ensure a healthier and happier tomorrow.

“We are a community benefit; that’s how some people define us; but we see this is a mission of service,” Angie, my friend and in many ways the heart of the Network of Trust, further explained. “We’re not just a program; we’re not just a department. We’re on a mission to change lives.”

And it’s the vast ways the Network of Trust is changing lives that’s really so impressive.

As with most things, in order to get to the root of what the Network of Trust is doing in the community, it’s necessary to look back at its beginnings some 25 years ago when Angie said the hospital, and original Network of Trust director Veronica Bryant, received a “two-year planning grant,” to begin looking into ways to help unwed mothers.

“That little grant was Indigent Care Trust Fund money,” Angie said. “We were going to be a two-year pilot project. We were a teen parenting program. We were to work with our unwed mothers because Albany, GA, at that time, had one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy, unplanned pregnancies, and we were to help these young women who found themselves pregnant remain in school, graduate high school and have successful lives.”

“What started the whole Network of Trust is teen parenting classes,” added Hope Harrelson, a nurse educator who’s been on the staff for more than a decade. “So we continue to do that. The educators go into high schools and middle schools in five counties. It’s not just Dougherty County; its Dougherty, Terrell, Calhoun, Lee and Worth. We teach child birth and then parenting classes. There’s a few goals of that program and that’s to make sure they’re healthy and then to make sure they graduate. So we stay with them until they walk across that stage.”

In fact, the organization has been so successful in guiding young mothers to graduation—and on to college, thanks to an expansion of the program—that Angie and the team say they’ve been blown away by the success the Network of Trust—along with help from the health department, the Dougherty County School System and other partners—has had since the team embarked on that mission more than two decades ago.

“During their time with Network of Trust and with our partnership with the health department and the school system we’ve had a 40% decrease in teen pregnancy,” Angie shared. “And that is huge because when this started years ago we wanted a 15% decrease, I remember, by 2015. There’s been a lot of people working together to get us there.”

Certainly if that were the extent of the Network’s impact on the community, the program would definitely be worthy of attention, but as Angie, Hope, fellow nurse educators Karen Hills and Kristen Champion, and nurse Shaquana Carr continued to unfurl the deeper narrative of the Network of Trust, I became even more convinced of the need to shine a light on this impressive organization and the committed and passionate people who drive its success.

In order to further expound on what the Network is doing, and how it’s working to change lives, it’s important to hone in on the actual “network” concept and how that has informed everything the initiative is connected to.

You see, as Angie and the team explained it, the Network’s focus grew as its network of community partners continued to expand.

For example, thanks to its strong partnership with the school system, what started as classes for pregnant teens grew to include Network team members helping to formulate preventative measures aimed not only at limiting teen pregnancy but also teaching teens how to better care for their bodies and engage in healthy lifestyles, something that has had a huge impact on the successes shared above.

“At the time, our program was only set up for those girls who fell through the cracks,” said Hope. “It was the school’s job to do sex education and so on and so forth, and the parents or whoever. The girls that needed us—who were facing an unplanned pregnancy—that was what our program was about.

“But then we started to expand into sex education and being trained with the schools and being able to teach.”

“We collaborated,” added Karen. “Again it’s a network. We collaborated with the school system to get a revised sex education policy here in Dougherty County and that all stemmed from teen pregnancy and the research into why there is such a problem with STDs and teen pregnancy here in Dougherty County. They realized they had to do more comprehensive sexual education. So we collaborated with them and got it updated.

“We don’t take the leadership on that, but we support the school system and those that do sexual education.”

With that strong partnership with the school system in place the Network continued to grow and evolve and several years ago that evolution led the Network of Trust into its other major focus, which is providing nurses at all the schools in Dougherty County.

“The program itself is like an umbrella; there’s different programs under it,” Hope explained. “First there’s the school clinics. There’s a nurse assigned to each school and we try to have a presence at each school and our main goal is not Band-Aids and headaches, it’s actually monitoring chronic illnesses –diabetes, asthma.

“Without Phoebe doing this there would be no school nurses. The state pulled them a long time ago and Phoebe stepped up and provided nurses for middle schools and then they stepped up and provided nurses for high schools. And then the state pulled elementary school nurses so we stepped up to do that. There wouldn’t be anybody without this program.”

Because of limited staffing and the fact that Network of Trust does not charge for its services, the organization is unable to staff every school in the county all day every day, but through creative scheduling and dedication, a nurse is present for half a day, a certain number of days a week, depending on a school’s need.

“Every school’s different and some schools have more cases of chronic illnesses than others and it changes every year. So part of our job is to strategically analyze that and see where the needs are and adjust our staff to best cover the needs; and it’s not perfect,” said Karen. “There’s only so many people. It’s like stretching your dollars. You’ve got to put resources where you can.”

“It’s not perfect coverage, but it’s a presence,” added Hope.

Although Hope, Karen and the rest of the team would love to spend more time in the schools, they are excited to now have a good working partnership with Albany Area Primary Health Care which is in the process of placing clinics in several area schools. Angie said that will only allow further access to needed medical care which is vitally important for a largely impoverished population.

“We partner with them for their school-based health centers,” said Angie. “They’re in two schools right now, but they’ll do four of five more. We’re in the other 18 now. We believe that where you have it a school nurse should always be the front line. Your school-based health centers, that can be your midlevel practitioner for your more chronic diseases and the clinic becomes their medical home, but we’re going to see them no matter what.”

In addition to that partnership, Network of Trust still sees a need to have increased coverage in the schools during the times nurses aren’t present so team members have been providing training to school employees in the form of school safety teams.

“We started CPR for the safety teams at the schools because we realized how important it was, if we are not there, for the children to be safe,” shared Karen, who along with Hope loves the teaching aspect of the safety team training. “What happens if a cardiac event happens, or things with an Epipen, an allergic reaction, happen? That’s how it started out.

“Now at every school in Dougherty County we’ve certified safety teams. So, there’s a team that takes care of the children in our absence and that’s one of the things we love”

In addition to the safety teams the Network’s presence in Dougherty County’s elementary, middle and high schools has also served as the basis for even greater expansion of the Network of Trust’s ability to serve the community in other interesting ways, including finding funding to place an AED (Automated External Defibrillator) in each school and training the safety teams to use it.

In another example, the Network also had a hand in creating gardens at area elementary schools, a project which is near and dear to Angie’s heart.

“One year the American Heart Association reached out to Phoebe and they said the word ‘garden’ and all Phoebe had to say was ‘Angie,’” she said with a smile. “So we now have school gardens in every elementary school in the county. Network of Trust is the sponsor for the school gardens and we also go dig in the dirt with the students. We want every child to touch a seed, watch it grow, help harvest it.”

The connection to the school system has also allowed the Network of Trust team to host health fairs at area schools throughout the year and open up yet another avenue to have an impact.

Beginning with the middle schools—and recently expanded to the elementary and high schools—the half-day health fairs give the Network’s nurses and their community and corporate partners (such as Kohl’s which provides funding through Kohl’s Cares) an opportunity to set up fun activities to educate students and faculty about healthy lifestyles.

The fairs include demonstrations about nutrition and exercise activities such as Zumba and Go Noodle.

“It used to just be middle school and we did little screenings and stuff, but we reassessed it and said, ‘you know what, most of our kids have access to a physician;’ so now a lot more effort is being put on education, and prevention, like teaching kids that not being obese can prevent diabetes and doing nutrition activities, those types of things,” Karen explained.  “We make popcorn and say ‘you know this is a healthy snack; you can have this.’ And we make smoothies.

“And we have CPR mannequins there and ‘Choking Charlie’ to show them the Heimlich. They actually come through and visit the stations. It’s not like a class. The kids love it.”

As the Network team continued to run down the list of ways the organization is working through its partnerships to improve life in the community, the more the overarching picture of the organization really started to take shape.

What I began to realize is that all of the various activities are connected to being healthy and even more importantly, teaching children to be healthier, which should pay dividends across multiple generations.

“We care about people,” said Shaquana. “We are people-centered. All communities are based on their people—the health of their people, the education level of their people, the happiness of their people—so the more you can touch people and motivate them and encourage them or just help them to be healthier and happier, you’ll have a stronger community.

“It’s all about trying to help them, educate them, keep them alive.”

Kristen concurred, saying she sees health education for children—and by extension their adult relatives and teachers—as the primary focus of the Network’s activities and adding that she feels the Network is making a difference.

“I definitely think the main portion of our job that is so important is just being there for the parents and students and helping the teachers with the medications the children need and with health promotion,” she said. “I think educating the community on health promotion and health prevention and talking to the children about what they eat and teaching them to choose healthy snacks and teaching the diabetics how important it is to know that the choices they make now are really going to impact them later in life is the most important thing.”

That sentiment is also shared by Angie who, true to her nature, adds a sort of philosophic take on the Network and the work it does.

“We know that this is the golden key to changing lives,” she said. “There’s no question it’s the key to changing lives because we do the healthy lifestyle component—from the CPR training, to the school nursing, the prevention teams, the HIV education, diabetes education. We’re encompassing what every health need can be. We take them from birth until they graduate high school. So the positive impact of how they can live to be healthier adults can change their lives and changes this community.

“We belong to the community. We’re here to help the community meet the needs of the families and the children here in our community.”

And as far as Angie is concerned there’s still plenty of work left to be done and she believes the secret to meeting the community’s various needs is for the Network to continue evolving and continue developing its network of partners throughput the region.

Already the Network of Trust has furthered its connection to the school system and the health department, while also building partnerships with Albany State University (which partners with the Network on HIV education at the college level), Girls Inc., the Boys and Girls Clubs of Albany, the Morehouse School of Medicine, Liberty House, local government, the Lily Pad, Family Connections, corporate partners like Kohl’s and Firehouse Subs, and countless others. And the results are undeniable.

“You know the strength of the wolf is in the pack,” Angie told me. “That is not an original saying, but the first time I ever heard it I thought, ‘I get it. I get it.’ Your strength is in numbers. You get a group who believes, who’s focused on the mission, and you can get things done.

“Our mission is to be of service, to bring prevention, to bring education and do it through love and caring and being knowledgeable about the areas we serve, and about the people, what they need.

“When you do that together as a team, that’s when you’re going to make your biggest difference. When you talk about a Network of Trust, and that is what we are based on, it is a network of partners throughout the community who will trust and believe that we can do this together. That name was chosen for that reason.”

It’s for that reason that Angie, whom the team members refer to as their “fearless leader,” is a fixture throughout the community, always looking for new ways to be of service and therefore making new important connections.

“The hospital has a contract with the school system to do these clinics through the Network of Trust, and basically we could stay right there if we wanted to, but our fearless leader doesn’t allow that, which is good,” said Hope. “She sometimes has to kick us a little bit and shove us with a smile and say, ‘this is what you get to do.’ But because she worked the magic and she’s made that connection and she’s reached out to this group, now we have an opportunity to do something that we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do. We just have to step up to the plate.”

“Because of her heart, her passion, she can’t say no if it’s a good cause that’s going to help people,” added Karen. “Because she can’t say no, that’s why we do so much stuff.

“And she’s always got our back too. She won’t leave us out to dry. Her heart is for real.”

It’s fitting really that Karen would talk about Angie’s enormous heart, because heart is really central to what Network of Trust is all about—the heart of those that serve and the beating heart of this community, which continues to be a source of inspiration for people like Angie, Hope, Shaquana, Karen, Kristen, and all the team members I didn’t have the pleasure to chat with during my visit.

Heart is why the Network team is out there on the front lines trying to make a real difference and loving every minute of it.

“People who work at Network of Trust love people,” Angie told me as we started to wrap things up. “Therefore since Network of Trust is all about people we love our jobs.

“I’ve always believed that Network of Trust must start with your heart. If you arrive here and your heart is really not a heart of service, you’re not going to stay but a minute. You’re going to be out that door pretty quick.

“We’re a piece of the puzzle that is the heart of Albany, Georgia. And it’s through the heart that we can change lives.”

And from what I’ve seen this community and its heart are in much better shape thanks to the Network of Trust.

Connect with Brad - 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen