Finding words for a growing family

Posted by Tonia Smith on Oct 15, 2019 3:34:11 PM

Tonia attempt 3I share my story to support continued funding for Tracey’s work with my family and other families, and to show that there’s no right path to raising a family. It’s okay that our family looks different.

Four years ago, the Iowa Department of Human Services contacted me. My niece had run into trouble, and her four children needed a permanent home. My husband describes the moment in this way:

“It was a beautiful sunny day out and we were on our boat, and out in the distance, we could see four kids in the water and they were in distress. Do we look at each other and say, ‘What do we do?’ Or, do we pull them into our boat and figure it out later.”

We chose to pull them into our boat (our South Side home). At that time, they were ages 6, 4, 3, and six months.

The transition was difficult. We had already raised four kids, then teenagers and young adults. After 16 years of marriage, we were looking forward to settling into a slower pace and nearing retirement. The four young kids had experienced trauma and transitioned through several homes. They didn’t know how to express what they were feeling and had gone through.

I thought at that time: “Wow! This is a lot! … But if there’s something we could do, then we needed to try to do it.”

When two of the boys started preschool at Mitchell Early Learning Center in Des Moines they soon started acting up in different ways. Chase, the four-year-old, would cry a lot, while Mason, age 3, would hit people and run around.

They were going through a lot and they didn’t know how to express their feelings. They didn’t know us, and we didn’t know them.

Tears stream down my cheeks as I think about what it felt like knowing they were in such pain—acting out this way and even disrupting the class. I just felt sorry for them.

Then Tracey Campo-Westergaard, a school social worker, received a referral from Mason’s teacher. She created an intervention plan that the teacher, school staff, and we could implement. The plan focused on giving Mason tools for managing his emotions, like blowing on a pinwheel or breathing in and out when he was upset. Tracey also supported the kids with classroom lessons and small group social skills.

Women United funds healthy development

Funding from United Way of Central Iowa’s Women United allows Tracey to work full time at Mitchell Early Learning Center, offering support to all students and working with about one-half of the 400 students in smaller settings. She works on social and emotional learning with skills like how to listen, follow directions, problem solve, express feelings, and maintain friendships.
“When we have challenging behaviors, that can get in the way of academics,” Tracey says. “We have to make sure we’re always addressing the behavior, so it doesn’t impede learning.”
The funding from Women United “means everything because truly we’re available all the time to families, to students, to teachers,” says Tracey. “We don’t have to necessarily refer out. We can do a lot of things at the school.”
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In about a year, Mason went from being aggressive to managing his emotions. Mason’s teachers would check off a sheet to let me know how Mason did each day and whether he met his goal, and we then practiced the same skills at home.

I could see that the plan was working. It took time and it was hard work. You would do it and then the next week there were problems, but over time, we could see that, wow, it makes a difference.

The kids now talk about what they’re feeling, whether they are happy, sad, or mad. They are able to use their words.

Now Tracey is helping us support the youngest, Jeremiah, who is beginning to display similar behaviors.

Today, we are all settled in as one family. We cuddle up on the couch and watch TV or play in the backyard and go on walks. The younger kids are active in sports, especially soccer.

Every November, we celebrate adoption day with the kids like a birthday.

I am grateful to my older kids for stepping in to help and to a community organization that provided beds, car seats, formula, and diapers when they first brought in the younger kids. And I’m most grateful for Tracey’s support.