Reassurance for new parents in an atmosphere of play

Marline Pena (left) during a home visit with Demaris and Gethzemany Chavez of Mesa.

Marline Pena has a play date once a month at the Chavez home in Mesa. It’s part of her job.

She’s a developmental specialist with the Child Development Department at Cardon Children’s Medical Center in Mesa. And while it may look like she’s just playing with baby Gethzemany (the “g” is pronounced like an “h”), her trained eye is doing much more.

She’s watching for signs that he’s on track in terms of physical development and communication skills. She’s modeling age-appropriate play techniques and adult-child interaction that nurtures a baby’s physical strength and emotional engagement. And she’s answering questions from Gethzemany’s proud mother, who seeks reassurance (as all mothers do) that her baby is doing exactly what he should be doing for his age.

Gethzemany Chavez and his mom, Demaris.

Gethzemany is the third child of Demaris Chavez of Mesa and her husband; they also have an 8-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son whose portraits are displayed throughout the family’s cozy, immaculate home. The baby is 9½ months old, but because he was born prematurely, his developmental age is 8 months. That’s what flagged attention at Cardon Children’s and made his family eligible for participation in a First Things First-funded parent education program called Pregnancy, Parenting and Play.

I got to see the program in action yesterday, when I visited the Chavez home with Nick Calderone of Reel Stories, Multi Media Production and Training. I first met Nick nearly a decade ago, when he worked at KPNX-TV Channel 12 and was the multimedia journalist assigned to produce weekly “Raising Arizona Kids” segments. Now an independent journalist and film producer, he agreed to create the first video in a new family health series we will be co-producing over the next year with Cardon Children’s.

Gethzemany Chavez.

I don’t always go along on video shoots but I was eager to reconnect with Nick and see the home visit for myself. “I won’t get in your way,” I promised Nick. “But let me know if there is anything I can do to help.”

An unexpected challenge popped up during the shoot. Two of the Chavez family’s smoke detectors started chirping as Nick set up his equipment. Goldie LaPorte, manager of the Child Development Department at Cardon, ran to the store to buy some 9-volt batteries. Being a few inches taller, I volunteered to install them. It didn’t stop the chirping. Goldie got up on the stepstool and tried again. Still no luck. So Nick went about the shoot, getting some great footage of happy, gregarious Gethzemany, his mom and Marline playing and interacting on thick blankets on the floor.

Toward the end of the shoot, as we were interviewing Goldie, Nick got on the stepstool himself and discovered that I’d installed the batteries backwards. So much for my attempt to help!

Since it began a year ago, the Pregnancy, Parenting and Play program has provided a slew of support services for 250 families in Mesa, Gilbert and Queen Creek. The program caters to the needs of pregnant and parenting teens, parents of infants born prematurely and families in crisis.

Including the monthly home visits from developmental specialists like Marline, the program provides access to prenatal education, support for doctor visits, information about free resources for families, monthly support groups and more. You can’t help but wonder what would happen if every new parent could have this kind of supportive guidance — and an expert’s answers to the onslaught of questions we all face about the many other aspects of raising a healthy child.

Watch Nick’s piece on RAK Video.

Goldie LaPorte and Marline Pena of Cardon Children's Child Development Department.

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