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FAMILY NETWORK HELPS LATINO IMMIGRANTS RIGHT FROM THE START

Marta Carballido came to the Family Network when she was five months' pregnant with her third child. The free program in the basement of the Highland Park Presbyterian Church taught her how to breathe and relax during labor and gave her health tips and advice on breast-feeding.

The network provided a doula who coached the Mexican immigrant through a difficult labor and later checked on her at her Highwood home while her husband, a dog walker, was at work. The aid didn't stop there: Since giving birth to Aurelio six months ago, Carballido has taken her children to sing-along classes and play dates for infants and toddlers.

"I like everything about this place," Carballido said. "They taught me how to feed the baby, how to play with the baby, how to sing to them. I like the activities they have."

For 25 years the Family Network has been helping low-income families in Highwood and Highland Park have and raise healthy children. The basement space, donated by the church, was originally a play group. Then it became a "drop-in" center -- as opposed to a "drop-off" day care -- where parents could bring their children and stay to play with them or socialize with other parents.

The network is one of the organizations supported by Chicago Tribune Holiday Giving, a campaign of the Chicago Tribune Charities, a McCormick Tribune Foundation fund.

In 1994 the network expanded to create Right From the Start, the program that helped Carballido and hundreds of other low-income Spanish-speaking immigrants. Aside from the doula and the home visits, the program offers prenatal support, provides English-as-a-second-language classes, recommends pediatricians and gives tips on nursing a newborn. A separate program offers after-school care for children in Grades K-5.

"They'll guide us if we have a question," said Maria Lara, who brings her daughters, Natalie, 3 months, and Crystal, 3, to the network. "It's kind of relaxing. We can interact [with other parents] and exchange information. And for the kids it's like a school setting. They learn, they play, they eat."

Latino population skyrockets

The network turned its attention to the Latino community in response to changing demographics in Lake County, said Jordan Friedman, the network's director. From 1990 to 2000, the Latino population in Lake County exploded, growing some 130 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About one in four Latinos in the county lives in Highwood, adjacent to Highland Park, he said.

The program targets families considered "at-risk" because they have lower incomes, inadequate housing and less than 12 years of education, Friedman said. They also typically are culturally isolated and have no access to prenatal care, he said.

"There's a whole variety of risk factors," Friedman said. "The goal is to reach out to this community and to these families that are often quite isolated and to help build community, help connect families with resources and to strengthen and support young families."

The program partners with several area organizations such as the Jewish Council for Youth Services to provide activities such as swimming lessons and fitness classes. It began a family literacy program with the Highland Park Public Library. And it offers nutrition classes through the University of Illinois Extension, Friedman said.

The focus on prenatal care is key for the Latino demographic, said Nora Barquin, program coordinator for Right From the Start. The number of Latino women who receive no prenatal care is four times as high as white women, Barquin said.

Thursdays are "dual language day" -- when Spanish-speaking and English-speaking parents join together to share cultural experiences. This year, the theme was sharing talents and traditions, and the subject was the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday that honors deceased relatives.

"It was nice -- we had an altar up, and people brought traditional Mexican food," Friedman said. "A lot of our non-Spanish-speaking families participated and brought in photos of loved ones who had passed away. It gave people a chance to meet other people and discover that, as always, we tend to have more in common than we know."

Meeting other parents

Adrian Cruz, a cook from Highwood, brings his daughter, Chelsea, 8 months, to the network while his wife is at work, he said.

"It helps us to feel comfortable with other people, to socialize and meet other parents and babies," Cruz said.

Lara agreed that meeting other parents was key. Her husband works in construction while she stays home to raise their three children.

"When only one parent is working, it's hard to have access to resources without worrying about where the money is going to come from," Lara said. "This place is a big help."

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