Talk of The Rock: The Kodiak KINDNESS Project

KMXT’s Dylan Simard was joined by Heather Preece, Melissa Gandel and Stephanie Kell to discuss the Kodiak KINDNESS Project.

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Dylan Simard 

Welcome to another episode of KMXT 100.1 FM’s talk of the rock. I’m your host today Dylan Simard. Joining me are Heather Preece, Melissa Gandel, and Stephanie Kell of the Kodiak kindness project. How are all of you doing today?

 

Melissa Gandel 

Great.

 

Heather Preece 

Yes, thank you. It’s great to be here. Thanks, Dylan.

 

Dylan Simard 

Glad to hear it. So let’s get into a little bit about what the KINDNESS project is and does for people who might not be familiar with your work.

 

Heather Preece 

I can answer that. This is Heather. I actually founded the Kodiak KINDNESS project. I’m currently executive director. So the Kodiak KINDNESS project provides free infant support and education to any family with a baby or infant in Kodiak, regardless of whether they were born in Kodiak or not, regardless of how they choose to feed their babies, and regardless of their income, or basically; the only criteria is they need to have a baby. And we– the KINDNESS team– calls families at certain times after their babies are born, and provides home visits. And we just give any support and information that they need on any aspect of infant feeding or growth during the first year of life.

 

Dylan Simard 

So tell me a little bit about the group’s founding, its structure, and it’s more recent change to the way that it’s organized.

 

Heather Preece 

So we wanted to make a program that was accessible to everyone, with very few criteria, again, except having a baby. We wanted to make sure there was it was easy for people to get the help they needed in a timely basis. So no appointments, no health insurance, no cumbersome paperwork, just a phone number that they could call and we could provide services right away. So that’s the whole idea behind it. And we have been operating under the auspices of Providence Health and Services since 2006. And Providence has been exceptionally generous, both financially and for overall operational support. And in 2015, we actually became a community benefit program of Providence, which means that we didn’t have to look for grants from year to year, that Providence recognized the value of the program enough in our community to even want to spread it throughout other areas where Providence serves. And so in 2019, we applied for incorporation with the state of Alaska as an independent, we had a meeting of the minds, so to speak with Providence. And it was determined that it was the benefit to both organizations if kindness proceeded as an independent operation, because then we could also spread to areas where Providence doesn’t serve. Providence can continue to support us through grants and collaborative partnerships, but we’d actually even have more impact throughout the state of Alaska, and especially in rural areas. So that was the beginning of our journey. And two years later, on March 1, we became independent and have a board of directors of which Melissa is a member. And here we are now moving forward. So that’s a little bit of the story, the backstory behind that.

 

Dylan Simard 

So tell me a little bit about the the history of this sort of program and how it relates specifically to a more rural community like Kodiak.

 

Heather Preece

The original idea actually came through a personal experience of mine that I think many mothers can relate to. I was working for WIC at the time when I first moved to Kodiak, and I was a young dietician with very little experience helping other mothers to nurse their babies. And all these women were asking me questions that I didn’t have answers to, so I felt relatively unconfident. So I went to some trainings and got a little more skill in lactation, and then I got pregnant, had my own child. And even though I had had training in lactation and how to help other people, I was the one who needed help at 11 o’clock at night, the first day I brought my baby home from the hospital. Forgive me if I start getting a little emotional. But anyway, a wonderful Coast Guard woman actually who is the mother of three children who lived in my neighborhood, we used to take walks around Bells Flats. And she said to me while I was pregnant, “Heather, I don’t care if you’re a nurse, I don’t care if you’re a dietitian, or I don’t care what you already know about breastfeeding. If you need help nursing your baby, I’ve nursed three babies. And you can call me if you need help.” So I thought it was very sweet of her at the time. When I was pregnant, and thought I knew lots about breastfeeding and helping moms. But when I brought my own baby home, I needed to call her at 11 o’clock that night, and she answered the phone. And she helped me and she helped me get through that difficult time. And that really drove home to me how it doesn’t matter whether you have a PhD and lactation, whether you’re a doctor or nurse, whether you make $500,000 a year or $20,000 a year– if you have a fragile newborn, and you’re in rural Alaska, and you’re far from your cousins, and your aunties and your grandmas, and anyone that and the clinics closed, or you just have a one 800 number that you need to call and you talk to some stranger in Atlanta, Georgia, because it’s a nursing line, I just realized how valuable trusted help in a timely manner can make to that crucial moment. And so that’s how the KINDNESS project was born, no pun intended. And it’s kind of my way of giving back to what I received when I was that not confident, but well educated mom with great intentions. But with this fragile newborn in the middle of the night that I didn’t know what to do. So our whole mission is to meet moms at the hospital before they even go home. Make sure feeding is going well  before they go home, and then call them and the person who calls them is the person who met them in person, and they already have that trust relationship. And that they know that they can call us and we’ll actually answer the phone. And we’re a real person in the middle of the night if they’re worried about their baby. And we have shown from 15 years of covering 90% of births that lay in Kodiak that we can extend the rates of exclusive breastfeeding beyond the World Health Organization 2025 goals. People who participate in the kindness project, keep nursing their babies o, keep bottle feeding them with formula in healthy ways, confidently, because they’ve been given that confidence and that trust and that boost of what they need at that time. We have a 52% rate of exclusive Nursing at six months, and we have 40% of our participants who go through the whole program at one year are still nursing their babies, we have women who are confident first time moms about how to introduce their babies to solid foods, how they progress with textures, how they know their baby’s not choking, if they want to give them a little piece of banana, when they’re seven months old, how they learn to drink from a cup, all of those things that we are so nervous about as, as parents, we have that helping hand that’s right there a phone call away. And, and we’re able to prove that it actually makes a significant difference in infant health outcomes. And we’re hoping that by spreading through other parts of Alaska that we can make a significant impact on the health of an entire generation of Alaskan kids.

 

Dylan Simard  

So before we get into the the broader reaching plan towards bringing options like this to other communities all over Alaska, let’s go into depth a little bit about what specifically your services are from, you know, first contact with these with these new mothers and helping them out throughout over the course of a year or so. And also, I guess I’ve asked them two questions at once. How these how this was operating before COVID-19 and how you had to change your services after the start of the covid 19 pandemic.

 

Heather Preece 

Okay, I can quickly describe what we were doing before COVID. And then maybe Stephanie can jump in because her baby was born right in the middle of COVID. So we are at the beginning of COVID here in Kodiak, a February late February Stephanie, right. Yeah, yeah. So we, we meet people in the hospital. And then we primarily follow them through phone calls. If we need to do a home visit about probably two, I would say. Yeah, on average, two thirds of our families end up with one home visit that they need. Then we will go to their house. When COVID happened. We could still see I’m in the hospital, we were in PPE, we stayed six feet apart when we went right in the hospital room. And then very, actually, very quickly after COVID came to Kodiak, the hospital started testing. As soon as testing was available, we tested everyone that was an inpatient. So we knew that the mother that was delivering the baby was was negative for COVID. And then health care providers were also tested. So that was a safe thing to meet someone in the hospital. For home visits, we started, we started going to homes, but without entering homes, because we tried to do video chatting a little bit. But it’s not when you’re helping a mom, nurse your baby, it’s really hard to do that through a computer screen. And the whole personal connection thing is just not there. So and you can’t wait a baby through the computer. So we would go to people’s houses, we’d have our PPE. And we pass our baby skills through the door, sometimes, I’ve done it through an apartment window, because it was on the ground floor. And it was actually more accessible from the parking lot just hand it to her through the window. And then people would weigh their babies, and we’d have a little instruction card. And I’d be out there in their yard lurking around in the bushes with my baby doll and trying to show them through things through their windows, if we could, it was great entertainment for the neighbors, you know. And then. And that’s how we adjusted with COVID. But we never stopped giving our services. Because when we look at risk benefit, we got to look at both sides of the coin. So we have protections that we can enact to protect ourselves as much as possible from getting COVID. Is there a risk that we get COVID and spread it? Yes. What is the risk to that mother and baby of not getting the help that they need at a very sensitive time in the infant’s life that can affect their health for the rest of their life. So if we can take the precautions that we needed, I’m going to go help that mom. Right. That’s how we adjust with COVID. And now let Stephanie talk from her participants perspective on how it was to be on the recipient of that during COVID.

 

Stephanie Kell 

So we were lucky to have, and I’m sure you can hear me, we were lucky to have our daughter end of February 2020. So right when COVID was starting to emerge in the lower 48. So we got that in hospital visit before they had to get all decked out, which was nice. It was a blur, but my husband remembers meeting with I think it was Sarah. And they just gave us a whole bunch of information. And those first 24 hours with a newborn are so overwhelming with all the information. So luckily, my husband held on to all of that. And then when we got home, she had started calling us to saying you know, hey, let us know if you want to do a home visit if you want to wait check if you need anything. She was very persistent. And me being naive, I thought I know exactly what I’m doing. Nursing the baby is easy. And then it just it just wasn’t happening. Um, the problem was I did have to call it like 11 o’clock at night. Milk came in baby wasn’t latching correctly, it was this excruciating, horrible pain. And I’m in tears and my husband’s like just call the kindness people and like I don’t want to bother him. It’s like, this is what they’re for, just call them. So we did. And then we really built that connection with Sarah because she was on the phone with us two, three times that night and then came in to our house the next couple of days to do weight checks. And it turns out, she wasn’t latching correctly. So she wasn’t getting all those nutrients that she needed. And catching it that early on made a huge difference as far as fixing it before it became a huge problem. So then we had probably weight checks, I think every week, and that was just nice to have that encouragement and have someone come into the house and go You’re doing great because you’re exhausted and you’re not sleeping and and then the COVID hit. And I was really kind of worried that it was going to be shut down as far as not being able to come into the house, but they stayed on top of contacting me a couple times Heather did meet me at the door with the scale and her mask on in the rain saying here you go go where and she’s taking notes out there at night. And it was just amazing to have that connection, that resource even in the midst of a pandemic that was really scary. One of the hard things was I was really looking forward to the way in plays that you guys do as a coffee shops to have the other moms there and more of like a community event. But anytime they had like a training for infant feeding, it was like a zoom meeting. And so I got to see all the other moms with their new babies was like Oh, hey, I know. Yeah, we would be hanging out if we weren’t isolated. So it was just really nice that they didn’t stop. They didn’t let this big scary virus, stop them from helping us and staying in contact with us and making sure we had what we needed. So it was amazing that they just kept going. I’m super thankful for it.

 

Dylan Simard 

I’m certainly glad that you were were able to get the help that you needed. And to that effect, I know you, you touched on it. Very, very briefly, Heather, but I, I, you did say that, that this, this is a part of the reasoning that you’re going out and doing this during a pandemic, even though you’re facing big substantial risk. And in doing so, the the early stages of of, of infancy are super, super, super critical. Can you speak to the effect of just how important it is that mothers have this resource and are able to get what they need in order to ensure the long term health of their child?

 

Heather Preece 

Yeah, absolutely. We know from years of evidence that that maternal infant bond is crucial to emotional, physical and cognitive health of the infant for the rest of their life, we know that when babies are stressed, and when moms are stressed, it has long term consequences. birth is probably one of the most defining moments of a woman’s experience, human life experience, and how her birth goes and how her perceptions about being able to care for her infant. Her how her confidence is about that, but also affects that mother child relationship for a long time. And so if there’s anything in everything that we can do to support positive, confident, Maternal Child connections, I just I can’t overstate how important that is not only for the infant, but for the mom. And I think both Melissa and Stephanie as moms and Melissa, as a teacher, as well can speak to that a little bit too.

 

Dylan Simard 

So as a follow up, as far as this type of care exists, how what would be your level of access to this in something like a major Metro or suburb versus us here in in Kodiak, specifically, or other parts of rural Alaska?

 

Melissa Gandel 

I can answer that, I think. Because Heather won’t want to like toot our own horn. This doesn’t exist in other places, in in nearly the same way. So I’ve even had Heather call cousins of mine in places as far away as Oklahoma who could not find the support that they needed. She’s worked with moms who have transferred out with the Coast Guard and continue to call her on their second or third or fourth babies. There are most hospitals have like most major hospitals have a lactation consultant. And that person can meet with you in hospital before you go home after you have your baby or, or you would have to go back in to meet with them. But the kind of service that kindness provides, to follow up with moms for an entire year that provide not just breastfeeding support, but all infant support, and all infant feeding support, like up through solid foods. And the in home visits, the weight checks. And I think the importance of weight checks for moms mental health cannot be overstated. Like when you’re not sure that you’re doing something right, and you think your baby might be starving, it’s terrifying. And so I think like having it in most places, you would have to go to your doctor to do that. And if a mom needs that, that to happen here every day for a week, to see the progress and feel good, they can do that without leaving their house and leaving your house postpartum is stressful. Like very stressful, you’re in pain. There’s a lot going on, you have to gather all the baby things. So this is a this is a very unique opportunity that Kodiak parents have and I think this was Heather’s brainchild.

 

Stephanie Kell 

Sorry, I just wanted to add I had no idea because I was kind of in the middle of the transition from it being tied to Providence and then it being a nonprofit and then you throw the Coronavirus, and on top of that, and even with all of those changes kind of going on on the back end. I had no idea. So from a stamp Have someone that was receiving the services, just having all those other things going on, on the business side for them, it didn’t stop how they continue to do the work that they needed to do. And being in the Coast Guard neighborhood, there’s probably six babies that were born last year alone. And all of us, at least to my knowledge, got the services and the help that we needed. without there being like, hey, hang on, we’re working on becoming a nonprofit, we’ll get back with you. It was never a gap in what they needed to do, or they wanted to do or what they had to do. So I just think that was amazing. So thank you for that.

 

Heather Preece 

Oh, my gosh, thank you so much. I am so happy to hear that. Because I that’s the one thing that kept me going through the last two years of trying to set up a nonprofit. I always kept my mind on that. Whatever we do this services to moms and babies cannot be affected.

 

Stephanie Kell 

I had no idea. You were like, we’re nonprofit. Now I’m like, Oh, cool.

 

Melissa Gandel 

What other has worked very, very hard to make

 

Stephanie Kell 

that happen. seamless. So Bravo.

 

Heather Preece 

On my wall, I think I have an honorary MBA and honorary law degree, Small Business Finance, I had no idea what I was getting into if I knew now, I knew then what I know. Now, I don’t know if I would have said when I got past the point of no return. It’s like when you’re on an airplane. Okay. There’s two, two things that I’m thinking about this analogy, because it’s so so apt, the first thing that happens is the door shuts when that door shuts and you’re sitting in the seat, and Okay, it can’t get off, I cannot get off this plane, unless like you really cause a big stink, then maybe they make you laugh. But then the second point, I never return, you know that you’re sitting there and the planes gaining speed going down the runway, right? And you know that at a point, the pilot has to decide, I can stop. And now I can’t stop, I have to take off. Well, guys, this whole journey for me has been like, I’m on this plane, I am not the pilot and on for the ride no matter what happens.

 

Dylan Simard 

So I think we will establish that you guys are providing a excellent service to mothers and their newborn children here in Kodiak. But as you mentioned, there, there may be a gap in this sort of coverage in other places in rural Alaska, perhaps even in in suburbs, or other fairly well established places, and certainly other parts of rural America. So what is what is sort of the plan for ensuring that this is not just the passion project of one person, but something that is self maintaining, and perhaps one day being able to provide services to places all over the state of Alaska, as opposed to just here in Kodiak?

 

Heather Preece 

Yeah. Okay. So we have 15 years of experience and results, new jump off of in Kodiak. So we’re a really great example. And we have data, we published a paper and a peer reviewed journal in 2019. That really, is quite a testimony to what this model can do. So we’re going to use that to apply for grants, and to make connections in other places in rural Alaska to start with one place in–

 

Dylan Simard 

What were the contents of the peer reviewed paper?

 

Heather Preece 

It was a program description primarily. But we did run a data on our breastfeeding duration rates and compare them to the Center for Disease Control. National Statistics, they produce something called the breastfeeding report card, which probably very few people are aware of. But there is a breastfeeding report card state by state that’s put out by the Center for Disease Control. And then there’s different goals that the World Health Organization and the CDC put out for like healthy people to 2020 and healthy people 2025. So we can compare our data to those parameters. So that’s the kind of thing that was published in that paper. And so we’re going to start town by town, and we thought we’d start with melodies, because there’s only 20 babies born their year. I have a connection and Val DS, and she is ready to go. And so hopefully within the next six months, we’ll be onboarding her, and she’ll be enrolling families, invalid these. I also have connections in gnome. I actually have a meeting next week with a couple of health professionals in Nome, who have grant funding to train peer counselors, and then kind of can hire them once they’re trained, and they can be mentored by the health professionals in Nome. So those are our first two communities, we’re going to start with, I do need to apply for grants in order to fund funds this, we have very little overhead because we don’t have an office space kind of sitting in office, we see people in the hospital, and then we call them and we go to their homes. So our overall costs are actually very low, our operating budget in Kodiak with a boat, on average, 125 babies born a year here, our operating budget is about $60,000 to operate the program. And that is no way that I’m going to take that back, our operating budget with a volunteer executive director is about is about $20,000. Our and So currently, I’m an I’m a volunteer executive director, because my intention is for all of the donations, all of the money, I’ll have the funding to go to the sustainability of the program, I just said I wanted it separated from myself. So it doesn’t make sense to pay myself if I’m trying to separate the program from myself. So that’s one big decision that I made recently that I’m totally at peace with. And very happy with, I know that eventually we’ll need to pay an executive director in the future because it’s not sustainable to not have a paid position for someone to steer a ship as big as kindness wants to be. We have being a nonprofit, I had no idea that like the opportunities that it’s opened up as an independent versus operating underneath another big nonprofit. So we now we have access to a lot of grant money that we didn’t have access to under Providence, does that make sense? no fault of Providence, it’s just the way noncompetition works. And then we’ve got a nonprofit agreement with Microsoft, they gave us 10 free licenses on this whole cloud based data system that we need. And we’re only using two of them on Kodiak. So we could use one and Val DS and two unknown, no costs, and then everything’s in the cloud. It’s just amazing. The technology blows my mind. But um, and then, yeah, so those are some ideas about how we’re going to spread. But we would love any donation of any amount from anybody to help us get going and help us be sustainable. We have a brand new fancy website. That is simply Kodiak kindness that o RG, and it has wonderful photographs of Kodiak families and testimonials of families that are through the kindness project. There’s no stuck images on that website, not even one even all the scenery and everything is all Kodiak. It’s beautiful. It was designed by Sarah Olson, who’s an amazing website artist. And even if you just want to go to it to gawk at the beauty of the website, and you don’t want to do anything else, it’d be worth a visit. But you can also donate and you can learn all about our programs and services. And there’s even wonderful education pages where there’s really good evidence based information on all aspects of infant feeding that is just at a mouse click. So yeah.

 

Dylan Simard 

Are you guys on Pick Click Give or Amazon smile?

 

Heather Preece

We are on Amazon smile. I we will be on Pick Click Give. I was all excited about that. So many people have asked me about that. And then I went to the state of Alaska Pick Click Give website and I read the fine print. And you have to be in operation for two full years. Before you can qualify for Pick Click Give which is really hard for me to say it’s like a tongue twister.

 

Dylan Simard 

So 2 years after your date of formal separation from Providence, you’ll be Yeah, I understand.

 

Heather Preece 

Okay, we can apply and then after I think the deadline is like February, and we separated March 1, so we can apply March 1 of 2022 to be eligible in 2023 24 or something like that. I don’t know it’s a few years from now, but watch for it.

 

Dylan Simard 

Okay,

 

Melissa Gandel 

But you can still give part of your PFC to us!

 

Dylan Simard 

Okay, I that’s the short and tall of my questions. Thank you all so much for joining me this has been another episode of kms keys talk of the rock. Joining me we’re Heather Preece Melissa Gandel, and Stephanie Kell of the Kodiak KINDNESS project. Thank you all so much.

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