SWANTON — Tamara Lapine was 19 years old, single, without a job or high school diploma and newly returned from Texas, when she discovered she was pregnant.

“I had just moved back to Vermont,” Lapine said in an interview last week. “I was terrified.”

Although she went to live with her parents – Gail and Bruce – in Swanton and had their help, Lapine said she still had many questions about the course of her pregnancy and what would come after the birth.

“What’s going to happen next?” Lapine said was what concerned her most.

Lapine sought help from the Vermont WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children). In addition to receiving nutrition advice, Lapine was referred to the Nurse-Family Partnership Program (NFP) through Franklin County Home Health Agency (FCHHA).

Following two years of work with a NFP nurse, the birth of her son, Dimitri, and taking steps towards securing a stable future – including finishing high school – Lapine is no longer afraid of her future.

She recently became the first graduate of the NFP program in the area, armed, hopefully, with the tools to succeed in mothering, in working and in life.

Learning to be a mom

Mothers like Lapine who are looking for help and guidance during pregnancy voluntarily sign up for NFP. There are currently about 55 mothers in Franklin, Grand Isle and Lamoille counties participating in the FCHHA-sponsored program.

“We enroll moms as early in their pregnancy as possible,” said Rhonda Desrochers, the Maternal Child Health (MCH) Clinical Manager for FCHHA. NFP follows each mother until her child turns two years old.

Most mothers are 19 or 20 years old, though Desrochers said the age range of program participants in Franklin County spans from 14 to 42.

“There’s no age limit on it,” she said. The only requirements for NFP are having a low income, being a first-time mother and enrolling before the twenty-eighth week of pregnancy.

Lapine, now 22, met all those criteria when she was pregnant with Dimitri. After signing up for NFP, she regularly met with a nurse to discuss various topics that come up during pregnancy.

“It’s really client-catered,” said NFP nurse Rebecca Rainville, who is one of three serving Franklin, Grand Isle and Lamoille counties through FCHHA and took over Lapine’s case after Lapine’s first nurse no longer covered it. “We say at a visit, ‘What is the information you need at your next visit?’”

Lapine, for instance, asked to learn about the various stages of pregnancy, what was happening to both her and her baby’s bodies, and what she could expect from labor.

“[NFP] brought me somebody to talk to about everything aside from my OB-GYN,” said Lapine.

Having a nurse to trust and ask questions of – some of which might seem embarrassing – is a key part of the NFP, said Desrochers.

“Teenagers are often very close to themselves,” she said. “They may be intimidated about talking to the doctor about certain things.”

One of those questions, for instance, is whether it’s OK to have sex while pregnant.

“That’s a big one,” said Desrochers. “Moms, young and old, just trust in nurses.”

In addition to being available to mothers during pregnancy, nurses are also around just after childbirth and the two years following.

“After I had [Dimitri] they came and weighed him every week,” said Lapine. She also received growth charts and a milestones information sheet from her nurse to make sure her son was on the right developmental track, and Lapine also received help potty-training her son.

“I [didn’t] know how to potty train a boy,” she said.

“It’s a great way to get connected,” said Rainville. “[To get] connected to your community and to get in touch with what’s happening with your body when you’re pregnant and after your baby is born.”

Little steps, long-term goals

As nurse visits became more spaced out and Dimitri grew older, Lapine said she became more confident in her abilities as a mother.

“I know a lot more than I did at first,” she said.

As her baby education became more well rounded, Lapine was encouraged by NFP to complete her own education and work towards independence.

According to Rainville, nurses work with mothers to identify what they want to do for a living, and then begin taking the steps towards doing it.

“Baby steps are really important,” said Rainville.

Even after mothers graduate from NFP the program can help them get connected with other services and resources.

For Lapine, she said that she wants to be an auto mechanic, or perhaps a hairdresser. When Dimitri is in daycare four days a week, Lapine attends Vermont Adult Learning to work towards completing her high school education.

She also is looking for jobs – she’s still living at home with her parents, who currently support her.

“We encourage [moms] to become self-sufficient,” said Rainville.

Bettering moms, kids

While Lapine is taking little steps towards securing her future, she is largely focused on Dimitri, a happy, healthy little boy who loves Elmo, trains and his mother.

“We play almost all day,” said Lapine.

Upon a visit to Lapine’s home with Rainville last week, it was immediately apparent that mother and son are doing well, which is the goal of NFP.

The program, which began in Franklin, Grand Isle and Lamoille counties two and a half years ago through FCHHA, is partially funded through the 2010 federal Affordable Care Act as an evidenced-based program that improves the health and socio-economic status of young mothers.

“It’s a community health program, basically,” said Desrochers.

Local NFP programs join those in Rutland, Bennington, Orange, Washington, Windsor and Windham counties across the state. The only remaining counties without the program are Chittenden and Addison.

Everywhere that NFP is implemented, Desrochers said the program is working to ensure the well being of future generations by creating healthy relationships and circumstances for young moms and their children, and, by extension, the community as a whole.

“We are truly teaching the community,” Desrochers said.