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LYFTE puts young parents on track for success

October 01, 2019

LYFTE program coordinator meeting with a client

Marcela Cousens, coordinator for Lifting Young Families Towards Excellence (LYFTE), meets with a young mother.

By Brian Whepley

Just four in 10 teen mothers earn their high school diplomas. Teen fathers, too, are less likely to graduate and thrive in the working world. Their children often continue the cycle, achieving less in school and facing a higher risk of ending up in jail and having health problems.

It doesn't have to be that way, as children who are more economically secure - and whose fathers are involved in their lives - are likely to do better in school and have fewer behavioral problems.

Those are issues that Sedgwick County LYFTE, a new joint program of the Center for Research for Infant Birth and Survival at KU School of Medicine-Wichita and the Sedgwick County Health Department, aims to confront by providing support and training to young mothers, fathers and parents-to-be while also connecting them to existing community resources.

The support includes one-on-one meetings with a case manager, who is guided by the participant's priorities and helps them keep on track for their goals. The training involves an online "badge" system that educates them in health, job, parenting and other skills. The community resources include health care and insurance, child care, education, job training, safe sleep skills and more.

LYFTE, for Lifting Young Families Towards Excellence, builds upon the expertise and experience CRIBS and KU School of Medicine-Wichita have gained through the Baby Talk prenatal program and other initiatives. The Sedgwick County Health Department brings similar expertise through its Healthy Babies program. LYFTE logo

"The focus of the LYFTE program is really on education and family sustainability," said Shawna Chapman of the University of Kansas Center for Public Partnerships & Research in Lawrence. "The goal is to get them to graduate from high school and think about going to college - maybe it's community college, maybe it's trade school, maybe it's a four-year university - and support them so they can do that, so when they're ready, they can go out and get that job and support themselves and their family."

In addition to Sedgwick County, LYFTE has three other locations across the state: Geary County, Barton County and southeast Kansas, where there's a multi-county collaboration. LYFTE is funded by a grant from the federal Office of Adolescent Health to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment's Bureau of Family Health, which contracts with the KU center in Lawrence to provide training, technical assistance and support for the program.

As opposed to existing programs, which often have age, income and other restrictions, LYFTE has greater flexibility, being open to pregnant or parenting teens up to age 24 and children of any age. And, unlike others, it's open to fathers. It has four coordinators - case managers or navigators - with two based at KU School of Medicine-Wichita and two at the county health department.

"There are other programs with a similar purpose that do a great job, but may have some restrictions in terms of who they serve and how long they can serve them," said Amanda Aguila, LYFTE maternal infant and health coordinator and one of the KU Wichita-based case managers. "LYFTE participants can be anyone who is in need. Not having those restrictions opens us up to offer services to those who aren't eligible for other programs or who want to continue to receive support beyond those services."

"There isn't a program out there that works with fathers at the level LYFTE does," said Marcela Cousens, LYFTE coordinator and KU Wichita-based case manager. "This program works to help them attain a high school diploma or pursue more education. But just as importantly, we want to increase their involvement with the children."

After a referral is made, the participant is contacted to discuss the program in detail, and to gain an idea about their priorities. The call also provides an opportunity to match the participant with the case manager who can best meet their needs. One is, for example, a nurse who can address medical needs, while Aguila and Cousens can serve Spanish-speaking families. The two case managers available from the county, because of licensing, can visit participants in their homes, while other case managers can meet at their office, a library, school or other site convenient for participants.

Using cards labeled with topics such as health and safety, life skills, education and career paths, the young parent prioritizes their needs and works with the case manager to create a plan to achieve them. They'll get access to an online educational badge system, which they can access with a case manager or on their own. Once completed, they can earn a badge and "LYFTE bucks" that can pay for things like gas cards, strollers, cribs, application fees and movie passes.

"They are in the driver's seat," Cousens said of young parents. "We are here to guide them and help them get where they want to be. We are here to support their goals and needs."

LYFTE began ramping up in fall 2018 and started seeking referrals in 2019, receiving about 60 in its first month, and then started pairing participants and case managers. Participants can self-refer or be referred by community partners, so LYFTE staff members have been out in the community letting people know about the program while also learning in greater detail about the programs to which they would make referrals.

They've met with safety-net clinics such as HealthCore and Hunter Health, and other organizations like Wesley Family Medicine, Ascension Via Christi clinics, colleges, Wichita public schools, the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas, Youth for Christ, Dress for Success, Embrace and many others. They've also reached out to programs like the NexStep Alliance, which provides economical GED classes and access to job training at WSU Tech.

Flexibility and adaptability are part of the plan, said Cari Schmidt, Ph.D., who is managing LYFTE for KU School of Medicine-Wichita. Schmidt directs CRIBS and is research division director for the Department of Pediatrics.

"I fully expect the program to change from right now to a year from now, once we engage with a cohort of participants. We will have better ideas for how we can meet their needs in ways that are meaningful to these teens," Schmidt said. "We are ready to experiment to find out what works and what doesn't so we can modify what needs to be done to help these young families thrive."

Cousens remembers well the challenges faced by a teen mom she foster-parented 16 years ago.

"Had there been a program like this, I could see how this would have been so beneficial to her finishing school and keeping on track," Cousens said. "I saw how she struggled as a teen mom. As it turns out, the father was heavily involved. Even though they did not stay together, the high involvement of the father made an impact on the child and I see it to this day.

"We will be that link, that missing puzzle piece, for programs and resources that are already in place. With LYFTE's wrap-around approach, we will not only be a liaison but also a cheerleader to help young parents see what is truly possible."

"I think one of the first benefits that comes to mind is it will give KU more visibility. Some people still don't know KU has a med school here. Having this program gets our name out there. Our staff always want to do more for their patients, and having programs that can extend that reach beyond traditional clinic services is a great benefit," Schmidt said.

"One thing I often say to my own staff is we don't do the direct work here," said Chapman, from the KU center in Lawrence. "It's the people who are in the communities doing the work who are really the heroes, and we get to support them. Cari's team and their partners at the health department are amazing to work with. They come to the table ready to put boots on the ground and ready to do the work. They are really focused on improving the community's health."

Learn more

To learn more about LYFTE, contact Marcela Cousens at 316-962-7986 or Connect with LYFTE through the program's Facebook page.

This article was first published in KU School of Medicine-Wichita's Embark Magazine.

KU School of Medicine-Wichita
Last modified: Nov 04, 2019
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