Nancy Ordonez works with parents in the Healthy Families program. When The Tribune visited the INMED Opportunity Center in January, Ordonez was working with a young single mother, Salem, and her 11 month old daughter, Bella. Ordonez said her goal for the program was to get kids prepared for pre-school and help parents gain the confidence to become effectively engaged in the local community.
Salem has been learning how to gauge her daughter’s development, and about positive discipline, stress management and other parenting skills. She wants her baby to keep learning so she will be prepared for school, do well and eventually go to college.
She found out about INMED and the program through INOVA Loudoun hospital. Just like with other parents, Ordonez has helped Salem create and meet goals such as getting a job, finding good day care, enrolling in ESL classes, doing job interviews and obtaining a car and driver’s license. Selen has completed all this in the past 11 months while in the program.
INMED Partnership for Children was founded in 1986 and moved to Loudoun in 1988. It is based in Sterling and serves Loudoun County in addition to having offices in Brazil, Peru, South Africa and Jamaica.
The organization’s focus was originally on medical access to third world communities, President and CEO Linda Pfeiffer said, but that eventually expanded to include domestic effort while the international focus narrowed.
“It’s all about inspiring and preparing communities to help kids,” Pfeiffer said.
Since generic versions of many medications needed in third world countries didn’t yet exist, INMED’s early effort would help by buying and distributing medicine. As the flow of medicine increased, they focused their efforts on training and educating local populations, and working with staff from different countries to their needs.
INMED began its domestic work in 1990 when the Commission to Prevent Infant Mortality approached the group to help develop a guide for minority communities. Many employees at INMED were bilingual, and at the time, government groups didn’t have services in Spanish, so INMED employees often volunteered.
The guide was distributed throughout the United States, Canada and Australia, and eventually turned into the Healthy Families Program, now one of its flagship programs offered in Loudoun County.
Although Loudoun has a reputation for being among the richest counties in the country, certain zip codes have a homelessness and poverty problem as bad as the poorest counties in Virginia, Pfeiffer said. As a result, INMED opened its Opportunity Center in Sterling in order to help aid this underserved population.
Pfeiffer said the move to Sterling was strategic. Sterling and Leesburg are among the areas of Loudoun with the highest homelessness and poverty problems. However, Leesburg has some additional resources whereas Sterling does not. INMED works with community partners to tackle these problems — the county’s Department of Family Services being the biggest partner. They work with school guidance counselors and principals to identify kids and families who need help. The Department of Family Services and county Health Department also refer families for homelessness services.
INMED in Loudoun
The Opportunity Center includes office space, classrooms and an all-purpose room. INMED offers an after-school program for elementary school children, a Saturday math and science class for middle school students, day-time toddler classes, parenting classes, ESL classes, computer classes and summer school programs.
The center serves about 1,500 students a year, Pfeiffer said.
The after-school program is a focal point of the center, said María Elena Vásquez-Alvarez, Director of Loudoun County Programs and Executive Director of the Family And Youth Opportunity Center. Many of the families the center services are Latino and other ethnic minorities, and often the parents don’t speak English. This means their children can’t go to them for help with homework and often fall behind, Vásquez-Alvarez said.
“Disparity of opportunity is the biggest problem in Loudoun County,” Pfeiffer said. “The right kind of help makes all the difference.”
The after-school program provides kids with time to do their homework and individual tutors when needed, giving them the individualized help with schoolwork they may not get at home. The program also helps families who struggle financially by providing a place for kids to go and get their work done while their parents work. CASA and YMCA after-school programs charge around $300 a month, which is a barrier for some families, Vásquez-Alvarez said.
Another key program offered at the center, Healthy Families, helps first time parents. It pairs the parents with a case worker who visits their home and works with the parents to promote positive childhood development, work on family goals and identify county resources. The parents work through the program until their baby turns three.
A third signature program of the Opportunity Center is Opening Doors, which works with families to prevent chronic homelessness. Families are paired with a case manager and work on finding temporary housing, credit repair, budgeting, job skills and, eventually, permanent housing. INMED also offers rent or mortgage assistance as a part of homelessness prevention.
The organization also works with disadvantaged youths. The county boasts a 2 percent drop-out rate, but that percentage jumps up to 50 percent among homeless kids, of which there are about 2,000 in Loudoun, Pfeiffer said.
“Kids in the whole area should have the same statistics,” Pfeiffer said.
On the international side, INMED’s offices abroad are staffed by locals, and staff members at the headquarters in Sterling coordinate with them to raise funds and launch programs. The organization works with local leaders to identify where they can help and then work to them the aid they need and train locals wherever possible, Pfeiffer said.
In addition to having permanent offices in Brazil, Peru, South Africa and Jamaica, INMED has also been involved with specific projects in other countries around the world. International programs focus on agriculture, health, education, and economic skills depending on where they are.
“It’s all focused on kids, but you have to look at it holistically,” Pfeiffer said.
Schools screen kids to make sure they have the economic and academic need and then refer them to INMED. The center’s capacity is 45 students a day — which doesn’t come close to meeting the need for the program, Vásquez-Alvarez said.
The center has seven paid staff members, the rest are volunteers, she said. The center relies heavily on volunteers to help run classes, provide tutoring and help with transportation needs.
Among the most frustrating aspects of the organization’s international efforts is navigating politics and administration changes, Pfeiffer said. For example, INMED has been in Brazil for 24 years where it has had to survive presidents being impeached and riots.
“It takes a lot of energy,” Pfeiffer said.
Diaz-Yap also sees a large need for the housing programs, but because of the county’s reputation and high median household income, it can be difficult to get grants to help fund programs.
“It doesn’t show up on the map that there’s a need, but there is here in Loudoun County,” she said.
When INMED began its after-school program, they approached one Sterling elementary school to see if it was a good idea. The principal not only thought it was a good idea, she told Vásquez-Alvarez that she could fill the program to capacity with just students from her school.
The best part of the housing programs is working with eager families who want to learn how to be successful, Cecilia Diaz-Yap, Family Services Coordinator said.
“We’re here to guide you but most of the work is your job and your success is our success,” Diaz-Yap said of what she tells families she helps.
Before Diaz-Yap was coordinator of the housing and home visit programs, she worked as a case manager. She remembers one family she helped, a family of four from Somalia. The parents lost their jobs and Diaz-Yap met them at an emergency shelter. Through the housing assistance program, Diaz-Yap saw the mom go from finding a retail job, working to get a master’s degree and then a job in Montgomery County for $87,000 a year.
“And I said, ‘you made it. All I can do is say congratulations. It’s all about you,'” Diaz-Yap. “That’s one of my biggest success stories.”
One of Pfeiffer’s favorite parts of the international effort is seeing people become self sufficient and solve local problems. Among Pfeiffer’s favorites is the aquaponics program, a type of adaptive agriculture for areas that don’t get much water. It lets people grow crops at a lower cost and in a simplified and more efficient way, she said.
In addition to INMED’s international offices, the organization has other efforts in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa. And although its local efforts mainly meet needs in greater Sterling, Pfeiffer hopes to see the organization continue to expand.