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Local nurses reach out to first-time moms through national program

When Anusha Balandoda found out she was pregnant, she was afraid she wasn't prepared to raise a child. "I didn't know anything about how to take care of a newborn," said Balandoda, a Sri Lanka native now living in north Fargo. "Things are a lot d...

Nurse Theresa Orecchia visits with Anusha Balandoda
Fargo Cass Public Health Nurse Theresa Orecchia visits with Anusha Balandoda and her son, Mihin Benatagama, in their north Fargo apartment. David Samson / The Forum

When Anusha Balandoda found out she was pregnant, she was afraid she wasn't prepared to raise a child.

"I didn't know anything about how to take care of a newborn," said Balandoda, a Sri Lanka native now living in north Fargo. "Things are a lot different here from where I grew up."

Her parents still lived in Sri Lanka, and she had nowhere to turn for immediate parenting advice.

A friend referred her to the Nurse-Family Partnership program, a free service that connects first-time, low-income mothers with local nurses to walk them through child health and development.

Balandoda began getting visits from a nurse when she was 28 weeks pregnant with her son, Mihin, who celebrated his first birthday last week. The support will continue until he turns 2.

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She's one of more than 230 area mothers the local versions of the national program can serve at once, a partnership that reaches over 500,000 children across the U.S. every year.

The program, which has been in place here for 13 years, involves seven nurses in Cass County and five in Clay and Wilkin. These nurses can serve up to 132 families in Cass and 100 in Clay and Wilkin at a time.

LeDora Wohler is the program's supervisor in Cass County and has been Balandoda's nurse contact for the past two years.

She visits Balandoda and Mihin at her apartment a few blocks east of North Dakota State University every two weeks. Each visit lasts about an hour and focuses on a topic decided by both nurse and mother. Last week, the topic was imitation, how infants mimic their mothers.

"We focus on the mom," Wohler said. "What are her goals, and how can we work with her to meet those goals."

As Balandoda pursues her doctorate in environmental science at NDSU, she said the time-management skills she learned from Wohler are invaluable.

Parents also learn about child health and development, safety and maintaining the mother's health.

To be eligible, mothers must meet low-income requirements, be pregnant for the first time and apply before the pregnancy has reached 28 weeks.

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The program is offered in 42 states across the country. It is in 40 counties in Minnesota, but only Cass County in North Dakota.

"I wish there were more," said Wohler. "That's my goal, to have more for North Dakota residents."

Nationally, supporters say research shows that the visits from a nurse reduce child abuse, behavioral and intellectual problems and emergency room visits.

It costs about $12,000 per family for two and a half years. Funding comes from insurance reimbursement, as well as state, federal and county dollars.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Paul Flessland at (701) 241-5502

Related Topics: HEALTH
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