Network of Trust addresses vital health issues

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- Before Phoebe Putney Health System President/CEO Joel Wernick starts talking about the Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital-funded Network of Trust program, he hands a visitor a piece of paper to read.

The material, under the heading "Too Busy Treating Victims," tells of a city's decision to build a hospital near the spot in a stream where nearly drowned patients keep washing up. The hospital becomes famous and well-known countrywide.

At some point, though, an intern asks the administrator of the fictitious hospital, "Has anyone ever gone upstream to see why people are jumping into the river?"

The administrator replies, "No, we just don't have the time. We are too busy treating the victims."

Wernick drives his point home.

"Too often, we spend so much time treating the victims that we forget to address the problems," he said. "The Network of Trust is a by-product of concerned people who decided it was time to look at the problem of teen pregnancy in our region."

Brought to life as a "six-month pilot program" through the efforts of pioneers like Ronni Bryan, Network of Trust has morphed into an award-winning program that has been addressing childhood health issues for some 15 years and counting.

"When this program started, we were certainly not bold enough to think we could stop teen pregnancy in our region," Wernick said. "But we were bold enough to think we could address the downward spiral that is a symptom of the issue.

"What the program did was take a non-judgmental approach to addressing the root causes of teen pregnancy. By being supportive, our goal was to help those teen mothers finish high school, to encourage them not to choose to have that second baby, and maybe by doing so end the cycle of teen pregnancy that we'd seen play out so often in the region."

Angie Barber followed Bryan as director of Network of Trust, which in 1998 received an American Hospital Association NOVA award as a creative solution to community health challenges. Today Barber and a staff of 12 nurses, five certified nurse assistants, five LPNs, four coordinators and one grant manager work together to promote healthy moms, dads and babies, to decrease repeat pregnancies, to decrease child abuse, to increase self-esteem and to prevent school dropouts.

"We predominantly work with our partners in the local school system and with our community partners to build bridges that provide health and wellness care for school-age children in the region," Barber said. "Ours is a pure mission: To make sure we have stronger and healthier children in our community.

"But the benefits reach beyond the students themselves and impact the entire community. The health care and educational elements we provide through Network of Trust increase school attendance, increase graduation rates in the school system, decrease the tax dollars used to provide care for unhealthy babies and decrease the number of repeat pregnancies."

Network of Trust has 28 health clinics in local schools, where many students are provided health services that have been neglected by often impoverished and uneducated parents.

"For many of the kids we see in the local schools, we're the only health care professionals they've seen in a long time," RN and Team Leader Karen Hills said. "A lot of people think of Network of Trust as a program dealing with teen pregnancy, but we often connect the various health care dots for kids who otherwise get no care."

Local school officials say the services provided by Network of Trust are as valuable from a financial perspective as they are for the health care of the students in the system.

"Students benefit most from the partnership between the Dougherty County School System and the Network of Trust," DCSS Public Information Director R.D. Harter said. "The arrangement provides a number of services, including the staffing of health clinics in all of our schools and health issue awareness for students and staff.

"In these times of ongoing revenue reductions, we are fortunate to have community partners to seek grant and other private funding that will help our school system deal with many of the health concerns that impact schools everywhere. Learning takes place best in a healthy, receptive student who is physically and mentally ready to learn."

Network of Trust's holistic approach to health services for younger citizens grew from a desire to offer health care and health education to students who might in turn choose healthier lifestyles.

"Network of Trust has been perfect for me because I've always been torn between wanting to teach and wanting to be a nurse," RN and Teen Parenting Coordinator Hope Harrelson said. "Even in the treatment of acute and chronic childhood ilnesses, we're able to impact absenteeism by providing basic health care.

"But especially in the area of teen pregnancy, we have an impact through prenatal care and also education. That includes working with teen moms to assure that they don't become pregnant again and working with them to keep them in school. When we started this program, only about half of the teen moms in the local system graduated. Now three-fourths of them do."

Network of Trust initially worked solely with teen mothers to increase healthy outcomes, but Wernick said the involvement of Phoebe Community Benefits Coordinator Darrell Sabbs changed that.

"I happened to bump into Darrell one day, and he pointed out to me that our program focused on teen mothers," Wernick said. "He said that by getting the biological teen fathers involved in the process, we'd help enable their being a responsible part of the child's life. Maybe not through marriage, but at least through support.

"In such a catastrophic negative, there are not always a lot of pioneers willing to get in the covered wagons and cross the prairie. Through his interest and cultural sensitivity, Darrell opened a new element of our program that has provided some heartwarming stories."

A conversation with Network of Trust's Barber, Harrellson, Hills, RN/Team Leader Sandra Breedlove, Healthy Lifestyles Coordinator Eddie McBride, Grant Administrator Lodessa Washington and Office Coordinator Amanda ("The Glue") Paul provides valuable insight into a program that has had enormous impact on Southwest Georgia, even if the work is done in relative obscurity.

As Washington points out, her grant requests are based on quantifiable results gathered from data based on best practices utilized by the highly trained staff.

"The benefits, the successful outcomes, are measurable," she said.

Yet there's always more that can be done.

"We could be open 24 hours a day every day because of the needs in the community," Barber said. "We want these kids to succeed, and we also want the community to benefit from the services we provide.

We've seen a lot of success stories ... That's why we've been here 15 years."

And, if Wernick has anything to say about it, Network of Trust will still be evolving and serving long past the next 15 years.

"There are all kinds of benefits to this program," the health system CEO said. "The more than $1 million a year we put into Network of Trust is part of what helps us earn our tax-exempt status, and there are so many benefits to the community at large. But if we just put our employer hat on, 85 percent of the people who work at Phoebe have Albany or near-Albany roots. These kids in our schools are our future doctors, nurses and technicians.

"I don't know that we've reached the end-point of what we can do with Network of Trust. I believe when there is fertile ground, sunshine and water, something will grow. Network of Trust provides fertile ground, and the return on investment in the community has been exceptional.

Yes, it's the right thing to do. But it's the smart thing to do, too."