REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Donna Harris doesn't mind being called the "baby lady."
She enjoys all things "baby." She likes the "Baby Bundle," a free basket of supplies that she provides for newborns, and their moms and dads compliments of the New Parent Support Program, located at Army Community Service. She is happy to provide information on child issues and available resources to new military parents. And she is always willing to visit the homes of expectant parents and parents with babies to see how she can support them as they experience the challenges -- and rewards -- of parenthood.
The "baby lady" label fits Harris well, except that she also helps parents with those terrible 2s and trying 3s, also known as toddlers.
"Babies and toddlers don't come with an owner's manual," Harris said. "Just about everything else in the world comes with an owner's manual, and kids don't. So, I want to be there to serve and help our military parents as they take care of these little people called babies and toddlers."
With the warmth of a well-seasoned mommy or auntie, and the experience of a professionally licensed social worker, Harris comes across as someone who moms and dads can talk to about problems with their babies, as someone who dispenses as much care and concern as she does information and resources, and as someone who listens and encourages rather than judges, and who offers advice -- not a demand -- when asked.
"I have always just loved babies and toddlers. I'm really passionate about those first three years. They are critical to seeing a child thrive and maximize their potential," she said. "Children are our heart and our future. And they come attached to families, so I want to help the families and be there to support the parents."
Harris joined the Army Community Service staff in midsummer, taking on the responsibilities of coordinating its New Parent Support Program. She has most recently worked at the National Children's Advocacy Center and taught at Alabama A&M University.
"I've worked with kids and families since I was in college," she said. "I specialized in childhood and family welfare, and I've worked at the master's level with kids and families for 20 years in health, mental health and educational settings.
"My job is not to judge, but to help. It's not looking for what's wrong, but building on what's right in terms of parent's strengths. Parents tell me what they need and what they are concerned about with their children. I listen and help meet those needs. Parents have to be able to trust me and I work hard to earn their trust."
ACS' New Parent Support Program is a voluntary prevention and education program designed to promote healthy family living through private home visits, classes, support groups, play mornings and community referrals. The goal of its programs are to enhance parent and infant attachments, increase knowledge of child development, and provide connections to support services that assist parents in healthy caregiving. Military families expecting a child or who have children ages birth to 3 are eligible for the program.
The New Parent Support Program activities include the delivery of a Baby Bundle when a baby is born, home visits where Harris provides support and information concerning the everyday demands of parenthood, Childwise Play Mornings that provide a parent-child interactive play group on Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning at 9:30 a.m. at 1413 Nike St., and various parenting classes with child care provided.
"Support and resources are critical not because parents aren't smart and resourceful already but because life throws you curveballs that can be stressful," Harris said. "And those curveballs can come very fast when you are talking about military families.
"The military has really been smart to provide a model of services that offers parents resources, safety information, stress management skills and child development knowledge; these are the kind of supports military families need."
Often, Harris' job takes her into the homes where new parents are learning how to care for their baby or toddler.
"The program we offer is based on believing in building on people's strengths. You can't be in the world, and especially in military life, without strength and resiliency," she said. "When I come into the home, I bring with me resources, help with problem solving and a listening ear. Parents, however, bring their own strengths, including being the main expert on their own child."
She also asks questions about a baby like: How is the baby sleeping? How is nursing going? How is the baby doing with other children in the house? Are the parents getting enough sleep? How often are diapers changed? How is bath time going?
With toddlers, she will ask questions like: How is toilet training going? How do you handle temper tantrums and other aggressive behavior? How is verbal communication developing?
"But my most important question to every parent I meet with or I visit with in their home is, 'What do you need?' I want to help them in any way I can to be as healthy a family as they can be, and to have a healthy baby or toddler. They are our future," Harris said.
During home visits, Harris offers development screenings with babies as young as 2 months old. She can repeat screenings every two months.
"I check to see if the baby is on track enough, and what the baby's strengths are physically, emotionally and socially," she said.
And when there is a development problem that is taking the baby off track -- such as a speech or cognitive issue -- Harris can refer families to physical therapists and other specialists who can intervene early to address a problem.
"If needed, I address development issues. If we are concerned about something like autism, the earlier it's discovered and treated, the better," she said. "I really believe parents are the experts who are aware of things before anyone else is. They are aware of their kids' strengths, and I'm there to help them build on those strengths.
"But mostly what I do is just provide resources and information that allows parents to add to what's working, to add to their effective parenting tool box."
Harris has a bachelor's in psychology from the University of South Alabama, a master's in sociology from the University of Michigan, 1987; and a master's in social work from the University of Southern Mississippi, 1995. She grew up in Huntsville as the daughter of a Redstone Arsenal employee. She is married, and has a teenage son and an adult stepdaughter.
While working at the National Children's Advocacy Center, Harris often counseled children from as young as 2 and into their teenage years after they had been abused.
"Anything we can do to help prevent those kinds of problems is so very needed. It is so wonderful to get in a relationship with parents before things like that happen," she said.
"Part of the reason the military has programs like this is to prevent abuse and neglect within military families. The stress of having a child combined with the stresses of being part of the military makes it especially tough for these families. When you have a new baby, you often feel like you don't have enough time, energy and money, and you're not doing anything wrong when you feel this way. It can be the most wonderful time, but it can also be the most stressful time."
Although she didn't come from a military family, Harris was far from home when her son was born. So, she is familiar with the feelings of isolation, concerns and lack of support that comes with being separated from family members at a time when a young family most needs them.
"I remember wanting my family there. I didn't always know who to ask for help. I didn't know all the answers to a lot of the questions that come with being pregnant and having a newborn in the house -- and I felt this way after professional training in child welfare. The deal is that a specific baby doesn't come with specific instructions," she said.
"I had the luxury to be able to move back to be close to my family support network. But what do people do who can't move back closer to home? Like our military families? I don't replace family, but I am available to help families who are serving and sacrificing for our country. I can support families through all the deployments, separations and challenges of being in the military. No family is perfect, and most need some resources and support during the tough times."
All services provided by the New Parent Support Program remain confidential. And although most of those services are accessed after a baby is born, Harris also works with pregnant parents in helping them plan for their baby and in having a healthy pregnancy.
Harris said being around babies and new parents is energizing.
"It's wonderful to be able to work with families who care enough about themselves and their kids to get the resources, information and support they need to be a happy and healthy family," she said. "We want them to be the happiest family they can be."
For more information on the New Parent Support Program, call Harris at 876-5397 or 975-1083, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Army Community Service office at the Pershing Welcome Center, building 3443, Room 126.