Partnership helps Mission address key link in breaking cycle of homelessness

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Play is part of the program at the Topeka Rescue Mission's Children's Palace.

But under the watchful eyes of Baker School of Nursing students, it also has a purpose.

"The ages of zero to three are the most critical in a child's development and we know that what happens or doesn't happen in that time frame is directly going to affect later in life," explained Jessica Hosman, director of the Children's Palace.

Numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau support the idea that education is an important factor in future success. Figures from 2014 show that 29 percent of people with no high school diploma live in poverty, compared to just five percent of those with at least a bachelor's degree.

The Topeka Rescue Mission is partnering with the Baker nursing program at Stormont Vail to provide developmental assessments of the children, all of whom are homeless or formerly homeless.

"Developing appropriately gets them ready for kindergarten, making sure that they can interact with kids their same age," said Lynn Fergola, APRN, with Stormont Vail Pediatrics who oversees the students as a clinical adjunct with the Baker program. "A lot of the kids here, because of their background, don't have the resources that some other kids in the community might have. They tend to all further behind in school because they can't keep up."

Fergola said the students use what is called the Denver Assessment to evaluate the children in four developmental areas: social contact, fine motor skill, language and gross motor skill.

"We have them build blocks, which that's looking at their fine motor to see if they can stack one block on top of each other and make sure they don't fall over. We ask them questions to see if they can identify objects. Asking them questions like prepositions and adjective and action words, really assessing that language skill because that's where most of our kids, I feel like, struggle the most," Fergola explained. "Gross motor are those things like can they run, can they jump, can they balance on one foot. Those you wouldn't think are that important but if you can't keep up with the rest of the kids - kids can be mean sometimes and kids get made fun of and kids get bullied and if you're falling behind, kids can pick on you and that doesn't help your self esteem or your mental development either."

The nursing students and their supervisors are also a link to basic health care for these families, many of whom only use the emergency room or go without.

"If all that mom needs is someone to say, 'You're teething, it's okay,' or 'It's just allergies. You can take an over the counter Benydryl,' we can give those recommendations," Fergola said.

If any issues are spotted, the mission can connect families with further medical care, or other organizations, like TARC, who also come right to the Children's Palace.

"It removes another barrier from our families; that they don't have to take three buses across town to get somewhere to get their child seen," Hosman said.

Six months into the program, they believe the partnership is making a difference.

"It's been amazing to see the changes in some of our kids, but also the changes in some of our parents," Hosman said.

They are changes they believe will help kids blossom in the future.

"Our goal is to get to the root of some of the reasons why families become homeless in the first place and break that generational cycle," Hosman said.

The partnership also helps the nursing students by giving them practical experience working with children.