Crossing Culture Lines

Courtney
McGrath
Outreach Program Helps Latino Community Locate Early Intervention Services

Realizing that a toddler may have a developmental delay could throw any family into turmoil. The questions seem endless: Where should you go for help? Will she learn to speak? Will he need special equipment to walk? What about school? Imagine how much more wrenching this process can become for immigrant families, who may already be grappling with issues such as language barriers, cultural confusion, job security and citizenship.

In recent years, the Baltimore area's Spanish-speaking community has grown exponentially, as have the numbers of children from Spanish-speaking families needing support services. But with few programs established with professionals who speak the language and understand the culture, many of these children have gone without the services they need. In response to this growing challenge, Kennedy Krieger's Family Support Services has partnered with Baltimore's Infants and Toddlers program to create Primeros Pasos. Spanish for "First Steps," Primeros Pasos provides service coordination for children from Spanish-speaking families who show signs of developmental delay.

Service coordinator Martha Hope Benson speaks Spanish fluently, but that's just one component of the support she provides to the families with whom she works. A former missionary in Colombia, Bolivia and Venezuela, Benson has developed a deep understanding of some of the values and traditions common in people of Latino backgrounds. "In many of these families' home countries, disabilities are perceived very differently," she says. "Services like these are not always available, and families may not even realize they can ask for help."

Families find Primeros Pasos through referrals from community health care providers, Primeros Pasos information flyers in Spanish and recommendations from other families in the community. Benson meets with the family, along with a team of evaluators, to determine the child's eligibility for the program. She also helps develop goals and strategies based on the child's needs and the family's concerns, priorities and resources. Benson can help families access physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech/language therapy, special education, psychological services, family counseling, referrals for medical diagnosis and other forms of assistance. She also frequently serves as or locates an interpreter when no Spanish-speaking service providers are available. For some services, Primeros Pasos families may bring their children to Kennedy Krieger' affiliate PACT's Comprehensive Therapy Center or receive home-based services from Kennedy Krieger's Child and Family Support Program. These programs have two Spanish-speaking speech-language pathologists and hope to bring additional Spanish-speaking professionals on board.

Primeros Pasos is the second program Family Support Services has established to serve a unique segment of the community. It launched Kodem Kol, a coordination service for the Orthodox Jewish community, in 2001. "With Kodem Kol, we've had success reaching families who might not have sought help otherwise," says Joan Lawrence, director of Family Support Services. "It's clear that the area's Latino community is underserved, too."

So far, Benson has helped 12 families find services for their children. She hopes that as these families share their experiences with others in their neighborhoods, churches and workplaces, other families will feel confident turning to her as well.

For more information on Primeros Pasos, call 410-298-1997, ext. 1066.