Our #AskHer series is an interview with our partners, community members and supporters who work tirelessly for women and girls. This interview is with Malinda Langford, Senior Vice President of Child, Family and Youth Services for Northern Virginia Family Service. The interview was conducted by our Communications Manager, Mercy Chikowore.
Mercy Chikowore: Thank you for taking the time to do this. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and Northern Virginia Family Service (NVFS)?
Malinda Langford: I started with NVFS as a Training and Technical Assistance Specialist from the Office of Head Start in 2005. At that time NVFS had an Early Head Start and Head Start grant and I was assigned by the Office of Head Start to provide support to the agency in developing and implementing policies and programming that would follow Head Start Performance Standards. I did that for about five years and in 2010 I became an employee with the agency.
I have been an Early Childhood Educator for more than 42 years. I worked in the Atlanta, GA and the Alexandria, VA Head Start Programs and also in both private nonprofit and for -profit Early Childhood Programs in the Northern Virginia area before joining the Training and Technical Assistance Specialist team for the Office of Head Start.
I’m now Senior Vice President of programs with NVFS, and under that umbrella is the Head Start and Early Head Start Programs where we serve 486 children and families. This program supports children 0-5 in school readiness with an emphasis on both academic growth and development as well their social and emotional well- being. Simultaneously, the program provides individual case management for the parents that addresses the social determinants of health for the families.
Another program under my umbrella is our Healthy Families Program that is designed to mitigate and /or prevent child abuse and neglect. This program serves primarily first-time mothers of children up to age three. We know, and not just because of COVID-19 that new mothers, regardless of their income can have a level of stress that might negatively impact their ability to bond with their new baby as well as their understanding of the emotional changes that they are experiencing after the birth of their child. New mothers receive a weekly 90-minute home visit from a Family Support Specialist who assists both the mom and dad in their abilities to build a positive and nurturing relationship with their child using the Evidenced Based Curriculum: Parents as Teachers. The program is not income-based, however the majority of our participants are referred to us by the local Health Departments in the communities where we serve.
The other program that I oversee is our Therapeutic Foster Care program, which contracts with the Child Protective Service agencies within local governments in Northern Virginia to identify a temporary, safe, and nurturing home for children when their homes have become unsafe. The program recruits and trains families to foster children, using the PRIDE model of practice: Parent Resources for Information, Development, and Education.
MC: That’s a lot.
ML: I guess when you say it out loud it is but on a day to day basis, it’s what we do.
We are going to reopen our Head Start and Early Head Start centers for in-person services to a limited number of families, due to our limited in-person staff capacity. In order to be supportive of our staff and to make sure that they can support their children in their virtual learning process, we allowed our teachers to determine which option would work best for their families. Teachers who felt that they could return to an in-person service, are doing so and those who need to be home to support their children in the virtual learning process will be virtual Head Start and Early head Start teachers. We will have a limited amount of spaces to serve children in-person so across the Northern Virginia area between Arlington and Prince Williams counties we’ll serve about 134 of the 486 children enrolled in the programs in person.
We’re in the final stages of our reopening plans that began in April 2020. Using the CDC guidelines to determine if we could do this safely, we’ve been working on the reopening plan for nine months. We opened for in-person back on November 16th, offering full-day services from 7:30 in the morning till 5:30 in the evening.
MC: Congratulations! That kind of leads into the next question — how has the pandemic affected the work that you do?
ML: In our each of our service areas, public schools closed on March 13th, 2020 and we follow the school system guidelines. We have some Early Head Start community childcare partners in Prince William County, VA and those centers never closed. But we did suspend services in the EHS classrooms because we recognized that the centers would not be able to implement all of the COVID-19 protocols. Because we are federally funded directly, we have access to resources that our community childcare partners do not as sub-contractors. They could not afford the level of mitigation practices that we would have in our own centers. We suspended the EHS classroom services in those centers and continued our financial support of the childcare center staff, by paying the salaries of the teachers who had been Early Head Start teachers so that they could be available to provide services for any children that came into the program. This financial support helped our child care partners stay open until our EHS classrooms there reopened on September 15th.
We started virtual services around the 23rd of March for our preschool families. We provided grocery cards for all of our families to supplement any needs they had from a nutrition perspective. We also provided diapers, wipes, and formula for our families with infants and toddlers.
In April, we revised our lesson plans for virtual learning experiences and developed activity boxes to align with the revised lesson plans. Those activity boxes were delivered to the household by the classroom the teacher every two weeks.
Each family enrolled in the Head Start and Early head Start program has an assigned Case Manager who supported the families in accessing the resources within the communities such as the rental supports, utility emergency assistance, and food. We have been able to support our families with some levels of technology so that they could be full participants in their preschooler’s virtual learning experience.
MC: And how did your staff take the changes?
ML: The Office of Head Start allowed programs the flexibility to design their services and ensured that all the Head Start and Early Head Start staff would continue to be paid their full salaries and benefits. Our agency made a commitment to all employees to maintain all staff through June 30th. As an agency we were subsequently able to apply for some funding through the CARES Act. We decided as an agency that we would not have in-person services unless they were absolutely necessary. Our essential services such as our Homeless Shelter and Hunger Resource Center (food pantry) did not close. There were other essential services that we provide that were altered in their service delivery but has remained open to those who needs them.
Our ECE staff have actually blossomed in this space. It’s been interesting to step back and look at how well they have adapted to being virtual teachers and supportive of their own children at home. There was never a time that anyone needed to fear that they had to come into a place of work that they may not have felt safe about. Subsequently, they really threw themselves into making the virtual experience for children as great as it could be.
Our teachers really stretched themselves in their technology usage and supported our families in their usage as well. They identified some Google applications that translated all of the lessons into the first language of the parents and this allowed the parents to have follow-up lessons with their children that supports the continuous learning opportunities for their child.
MC: That’s really important.
ML: Now that we are reopening some of our centers our staff had the opportunity to decide whether they wanted to be a virtual teacher or they felt comfortable and wanted it to be in-person. After determining the number of staffs that wanted to be an in-person teacher we prioritized the families that we could serve in- person. We decided that working families would have the first opportunity to return to in-person services.
MC: What else should people know about NVFS during the pandemic?
ML: Some of the Northern Virginia counties that received CARES Act dollars that flowed from the federal government to the state engaged NVFS to help distribute the funds because we have a history of and the capacity to get direct assistance funding into the communities. We have kept our food pantry and shelter open, and we have been a conduit for families to get support and relief due to COVID-related issues. We stood up an Emergency Relief Response Team that can provide direct information about the resources available and how to apply for them. We triaged callers to determine who may have only needed minimal help in identifying resources to those who may have needed more case management support. Our Institutional Advancement Team did a wonderful job in appealing to organizations and individual funders to raise unrestricted dollars in support of those living in our communities who may have been able to access resources provided through the CARES Act.
MC: Have there been any local government responses to the pandemic that have impacted your organization in unexpected ways?
ML: No, our standing relationship with our local governments was the reason we were able to support their distribution of relief funds within their communities.
MC: So, we already talked about how your staff have pivoted and how they’ve been creative. Do you have a sense of how they’re feeling or how they have been feeling through the pandemic?
ML: At the beginning of the pandemic, I think everybody was nervous. We have provided lots of platforms and feedback sessions for staff to talk about their anxieties and to ask questions. Any decisions that we make include staff input so I think that they are in a good place.
MC: How are they feeling now as the pandemic continues?
ML: I believe that they are doing well because they are armed with information about what good mitigation practices that they can continue to engage in to be safe. For those who will participate in the in-person services, they are comfortable with the level of PPEs that they are being provided and the very strict protocols that we will have in place to keep children and staff safe.
MC: So, in time, in terms of the families you serve, looking ahead what do you think they need the most when we enter the reconstruction phase?
ML: Families will likely need new job training opportunities, continued support around rental relief and more affordable, quality community child care spaces to support their abilities to go back to work.
MC: It’ll be interesting to see how people continue to get through the holidays but hopefully it just means that supporters will give even more.
ML: They might give more during the holidays but we know that over time there will be giver’s fatigue and that the pandemic will be with us for a while.
MC: Considering we’ve been in the pandemic for a few months now, what is this month, eight now, I think…
ML: That we have been working on a reopening plan for 9 months and we are about to birth this baby (laughter)
MC: Oh man. Yeah, I didn’t even think about it like that but you are right. We do not want to name this baby but what would you say have been the most important lessons you’ve learned during this time, if at all?
ML: I’ve learned the real value of communication, and inclusion. I’ve learned that to decide about reopening really required input from every single person who would be affected by the center’s reopening. And I started with staff. Each and every staff had an opportunity to weigh in on what they felt about reopening the centers and what options they felt they could function best in. We developed our reopening protocols based on the April 2020 CDC guidance on determining what a preschool would need to do to be ready to reopen their program. We met with our staff first and foremost because they would be the people implementing it. We brought in our governance bodies, our parents, we talked with our board of directors, with other community agencies like our county child care licensing entities. Because Head Start and Early Head Start are federally funded programs, we conferred with the Office of Head Start as well.
I’ve learned the necessity of engaging everyone who will be affected by any decision that will be in the decision-making process. When everybody is offered an opportunity to be part of a group conversation, we can problem solve and create an environment where everyone is comfortable with the decision that is made. We feel comfortable that we will do a good job of mitigating the spread.
And what we learned about the tenacity of people, and the willingness of people to do what needs to be done when they have had a hand in determining how it will be done.
MC: That’s fantastic. Is there anything else you want us to know about you and your work?
ML: I want you to know that our families are resilient. A lot of them have made difficult journeys to be where they are, both literally coming across deserts and figuratively making a decision not to leave once they were here. Those are hard decisions when you are turning your back on sometimes your younger children, sometimes your parents, your native land, and everything that makes you what you are at this point in your life. They do the hard work of just existing in a land that can sometimes be very complicated and seemingly cruel. Because they are resilient, they bounce back and keep pushing forward. They value education, they hard work and they want to give their children, the absolute best.
MC: I love it. And they clearly are, especially with your help.
ML: Our role is to be a partner in their journey. We’re not mechanics, we don’t fix things for people, nor do we fix people. We function more as gardeners, our supports and engagement with them help to fertilize a soil so that they can grow. We provide the family with both resources and information so that they can make the best for them.
I wake up every day excited about the work that I do and the people that I work with. Thank you for the opportunity to talk about our agency and the work that we do!
Find out more about Northern Virginia Family Service on their website.