Making Connections: How Lund Supports Vermont's Families | Paid Post | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
Children play at Kids-A-Part program - COURTESY OF LUND
  • Courtesy Of Lund
  • Children play at Kids-A-Part program

There are roughly 100 women currently housed at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington. Some of them might be staying a few hours; some, a few years. Every situation is different.

The one thing many of these women have in common: Roughly 75 to 80 percent of them are parenting minor children.

Jess Kell offers them a helping hand; she coordinates the Kids-A-Part Parenting Program, a project of Burlington-based Lund. Kids-A-Part provides incarcerated moms with parenting support and resources, as well as assists families through a difficult and potentially damaging separation. Kell, a mother of three, helps other moms fill out paperwork; schedule meetings with relatives, teachers, and Department for Children and Families caseworkers; and prepare to talk with their children about why they're in prison.

She makes sure kids of incarcerated moms don't fall through the cracks.

"I once worked with a woman who was picked up on a warrant shortly after dropping her child off at the school," she recalled. No one at the school knew that she wasn't going to be there at pickup time. Kell was able to help the mother identify and communicate with someone who could care for her child.

Kell has been working with the program since 2007; Kids-A-Part has been part of Lund since 2011. Pre-pandemic, Kell supervised visits between moms and their children in the homey Kids-A-Part space at the prison. Now those half-hour visits take place on Zoom. The women sit in Kell's office and talk with their kids through her laptop. Kell facilitated 10 such visits one Thursday in September.

"It's a very common thing for someone to say, 'Well, if she wanted to see her children, maybe she shouldn't have done X, Y and Z.' But that line of thinking punishes the kids," she said. Studies have shown that having an incarcerated parent puts kids at greater risk of negative health effects and that not having contact with the parent can inflict additional trauma, she added. "We can do better by these children."

Lund, Kids-A-Part's parent organization, endeavors to do better by Vermont children — and families — in a variety of ways. Kids-A-Part is one of several programs the nonprofit organization funds and administers.

Said president and CEO Tricia Coates: "At Lund, we work to strengthen Vermont families and empower them to break the cycles of poverty, addiction and abuse."

From 1890 to 2021

Lund was founded in 1890 as the Home for Friendless Women. It was a refuge for expectant moms, a place for them to give birth that also offered adoption services. In 1927, it was rechristened the Elizabeth Lund Home, in honor of one of its founders. That later morphed into Lund Family Services. In 2012, the nonprofit dropped the last two words.

Though its name has been simplified, the organization has expanded over the last 131 years. It's not just about moms anymore.

"When people think about Lund, we want them to think about family," said Coates. "Family is the core of all the work that happens here. People come to Lund because they want to make life better for themselves and for their children. We help build strong families, whether through adoption, treatment or other family services. And strong families mean stronger Vermont communities where children have an opportunity to thrive."

In addition to Kids-A-Part, Lund runs the New Horizons Education program, which helps teen moms finish high school. Lund also provides housing, job training and counseling support for moms in recovery from substance abuse. And it operates a licensed childcare program that specializes in trauma-centered care.

"Our unique and award-winning programs meet families where they are and help them to make progress towards their education, family and employment goals," said Coates. "We strive to make sure that every child grows up in a safe, secure and loving family."

'We Need to See Them'

Jess Kell, Kids-A-Part program coordinator - COURTESY OF LUND
  • Courtesy Of Lund
  • Jess Kell, Kids-A-Part program coordinator

Sometimes, providing children with safety and security means terminating parental rights. At Kids-A-Part, Kell works with incarcerated moms, families and caregivers who are navigating the family court system.

Other times, looking out for children means helping moms behind bars maintain relationships with their kids at home.

In addition to facilitating visits, Kell also receives photos from family members, which she prints and distributes to her clients. On a weekday in September, there was a folder of photos on her desk. "I've got one of a little guy in floaties, playing in a river," she said. "I've got some of kids wearing their backpacks on the first day of school."

"I'm really trying to give moms a sense of what their kids' day-to-day is looking like," she explained.

Kids-A-Part operates outside the prison walls, too. While Kell works with a mom, her coworker Heidi Wiener provides enhanced case management for the children's caregivers. The program is a resource for them, too. Wiener connects with service providers in their home communities all across the state, providing trainings and consultations in order to best meet the needs of children and individual families impacted by parental incarceration.

As Kell pointed out, we're all surrounded by children affected by parental incarceration. "They're in schools, on baseball and soccer teams, in dance classes and theater performances," she said. "We need to see them, and we need to understand more about their experiences."

Teaching the Next Generation

Another unique way Lund supports families is through its Early Childhood Education Program. The staff there is skilled at helping young children exposed to trauma.

Its 13 full-time teachers and support staff serve roughly 40 children ages birth to 5 years, a crucial period for brain development. Coordinator Judy Harvey notes that the childcare center carries the highest possible rating — five stars — from the state's Step Ahead Recognition Program, which evaluates childcare facilities. "We integrate academic and behavioral instruction and intervention to create the best possible environment for all students to learn," she explained.

More than half its students come from low- to moderate-income households. Some of their moms are enrolled in Lund's substance-use recovery program. Yet 98 percent of students are either meeting or exceeding developmental milestones, or have been connected to services that support their development, Harvey said.

The program emphasizes relationships. "We see strong relationships as the very foundation for all other pursuits," Harvey noted. That includes the relationships between staff and families. Lund staff work closely with caregivers, as well as students, to ensure that children thrive outside of the classroom.

The children's relationships with all living creatures are important, too — even the insects they find outside. "We never remove bugs or frogs from their homes without talking about our responsibility to take care of them and bring them right back after we have watched and learned from them," Harvey said.

Teachers use the natural world to nurture students' compassion, empathy and respect. For example, Harvey points to a project to help boost the population of monarch butterflies. All the kids are participating, helping caterpillars to transform into butterflies and releasing them into the wild.

"There is so much going on," she said, "from learning about and observing the life cycle of not just the monarch, but other bugs, as well, to sharing a sense of joy and wonder between all the age groups."

It's through projects like this that she can see her work at Lund is making a difference.

"When a child came in one day, proudly showing us the tiny caterpillar he had found with his mom and sharing his plans to raise it in the classroom, I couldn't help thinking that this caterpillar could not be in better hands," she said. "Nor could we."

Alicia's Story

Judy Harvey, Lund's Early Childhood Education Program coordinator, shared this reflection about one of her former students. It illustrates the impact of Lund's wraparound and family-centered services:

"When we first met Alicia, she was about 11 months old and not meeting any of the typical milestones for her age. Her mother was young, struggling with addiction and living in poverty. Her mom made the choice to get treatment at Lund, and Alicia needed a place to grow and develop while her mom was engaging in the hard work of treatment, so Alicia was enrolled in full-time care at Lund.

"Within months, Alicia was not only catching up, but also exceeding some milestones. By the time she left the program, she was meeting or exceeding developmental expectations in all domains.

"Lund was integral to this success, not only for Alicia, but also for her mother. While Alicia was fully supported in Lund's classrooms, her mom was able to not only complete her treatment successfully, but with a new sense of hope. She enrolled in a college program designed specifically for single mothers and eventually earned a master's degree.

"I see both of them, as they still come to visit — imagine that! Alicia is 14 years old now, and they're both doing so great. Alicia plays on a sports team, is involved in her drama club and aspires to be a marine biologist."

This article was commissioned and paid for by Pomerleau Real Estate.