A day following the birth of their "miracle" baby, Chris and Karla Graham received a new addition for their nursery's bookshelf from a special visitor. On Tuesday, Georgia First Lady Sandra Deal greeted the Cedartown couple and two other families at the Cartersville Medical Center, while highlighting important components of the First Steps program.
"It was wonderful," Mrs. Graham said. "I was really surprised when they asked me if we would like to visit with her. Nathan Deal has [been] … a wonderful governor. … It made our special moment even more special.
"We tried to have a baby for two years, and it didn't happen. So when he did come, it was a miracle for us — a surprise because we didn't expect it to happen," she said, about the birth of their son, Raylan.
Along with providing parents a copy of Elizabeth Brown's book, "Who I'd Like to Be," Deal underscored the importance of immunizations, medical checkups and safety measures, such as using car seats properly and placing babies on their backs to sleep.
"The purpose [of my visit] is just to draw attention to the importance of getting regular checkups for these babies after they leave the hospital and getting their immunizations on a regular basis so we protect them from diseases that were bad for us when we were growing up — those of us who are older," Deal said. "Because I had the measles, and I had chicken pox and I had whooping cough. You have all these diseases that can now be prevented. We want them to be prevented, so the children can be in school and do well and not be home sick a lot.
"… And, of course, I always have to encourage safe sleep and safe travel and encourage reading and talking to the baby, so that we build their vocabulary and teach them to listen and to read and to enjoy books, because that's important too. … This is First Steps. These are the things that get people started on the right footing. So I love to visit with parents and encourage them."
Offered by Advocates for Children, First Steps served at least 700 new mothers in 2017.
Formed in 1983, the Cartersville nonprofit assists more than 3,000 area youth and families each year. Along with operating Flowering Branch Children’s Shelter, Advocates provides numerous programs that aid in the awareness, prevention and treatment of child abuse.
"[First Steps] is our first line of defense for prevention services in Bartow County," said Cami James, Advocates' director of Hope in Your Home. "The goal is to make sure that all new moms have access to resources and information in Bartow County, [such as] Medicaid, WIC … safe sleep, car seat safety, Bartow Family [Resources]. Diana Paulk is our First Steps coordinator, and she goes and visits new moms in the hospital. We have a First Steps packet that each new mom receives.
"… Bartow County is unique in that it is a collaborative community. All of the government entities and churches and nonprofits have a tendency to work together for the betterment of Bartow County. So the reason for that is because there is a need here. We have poverty rates and education rates that are on par with the state averages, if not higher. So there are a lot more risk factors in Bartow County than we see in some of the other counties. With us being a rural county but also a suburb, it puts us in a unique position. So the more we can educate parents about healthy practices, the more likely we can keep kids safe and happy and healthy and thriving."
Along with seeing Deal promote the First Steps program, CMC Director of Perinatal Services Kelly Costner was delighted to meet the first lady and watch her interact with parents and their newborns.
"My favorite moment of First Lady Sandra Deal’s visit began with her arrival," Costner said. "It was such an honor and privilege to meet her and have her recognize, through the First Steps program, the collaboration that Cartersville Medical Center has with the program in identifying families with potential deficits and needs. Through Mrs. Deal’s recognition and support, programs like First Steps can continue to provide universal support for all expectant parents and all families with children ages birth to 5 years.
"… Continuity of care is so very important in patient care settings; our new moms and babies are 'well' patients that are discharged after just a couple of days. Recognizing potential needs, deficits and learning curves that require follow-up and monitoring well after this discharge is part of our role as health care professionals. With First Steps, we are able to provide an extra layer of support and safety while our new parents are transitioning into their new roles as caregivers. Additionally, any newborns with identified needs are followed and monitored while the parents are provided much needed resources and referrals."