This story has been modified since its initial publication to reflect a correction.

The Children’s Home Society of Washington in Walla Walla is upgrading online services as well as creating new avenues for families needing assistance amid a pandemic.

Meagan Anderson-Pira, regional director of the Walla Walla Region, said staff work with a combination of virtual and in-person services.

“It’s been an interesting year,” she said.

Current conditions simply add to existing stresses for families, she said. COVID-19, job losses, school closures and fear all contribute to cumulative stress and tension.

So there’s a lot more work for Children’s Home Society of Washington staff.

“There’s an increased need for food and educational materials,” Anderson-Pira. Those educational materials are available with stress-relieving suggestions included in mental health kits they distribute.

The strategy here is to avoid having the stress compounded, offering ideas for relaxing with the family, like just spending a fun evening with your child. For example, one kit included how to build a gingerbread house.

Much depends on the ages in the families, parents and children. Age appropriate activities are encouraged. But what also is important is to jump in and get started before a crisis.

“We don’t want the families to wait, the stresses don’t wait,” Anderson-Pira said. “We need to help people now before they are in a panic.”

She predicts the stresses will continue for some time on top of normal daily stressors but there’s hope and help.

“We believe in family resiliency,” she said. “They have an ability to get through.”

The portion of the organization that is still open for in-person learning is the Early Learning Center, near Lincoln High School, is in operation with about 20 students.

Anderson-Pira validated the organization’s partnerships with other agencies such as Blue Mountain Action Council.

Planning is ongoing for an online fun activity Feb. 20-24, “Sweet Hearts for Kids.” For years, the activity has been a luncheon but this will be modified to fit the current times. Fundraising and offering assistance will continue.

“We’ll have banners downtown letting people know we’re here and ready to help,” Anderson-Pira said.

The focus is on families, including several factors Anderson-Pira said contribute to family success in child development. These include decreasing sources of stress and strengthening parent/child bonds to promote a strong, safe relationship.

The organization has about 34 staff and uses volunteers, though there are fewer now than when they worked in person with clients.

From April to October CHS served 565 youth and caregivers, some were brief encounters for specific situations, many were weeklong or daily interactions.

The 3,524 meals provided in 2020 were higher than the previous year, Anderson-Pira said, adding, “We’re seeing increased food insecurity.”

Several programs have income requirements, some do not. Anyone can call for help, and if the situation is outside of the agency’s scope a referral will be given.

Children’s Home Society of Washington also offers educational and activity kits for virtual learning to families previously enrolled in its programs. However, anyone in need of support can come in and work with the family navigator to identify areas in need of support.

In a child abuse or neglect situation, a call is made to Child Protective Service at the Department of Children, Youth and Families. CHS can work with non-abusers in the family to coordinate services children need to heal. Often the parent or caregiver in the situation needs help getting through stress and the reporting party hasn’t heard the whole story.

“We encourage parents and caregivers to seek help early and often,” she said. “We can help them establish a network of support. When CPS is involved, often we are able to get the child back. It’s important that those who are in stressful situations get the help they need.”

One avenue of support is Parents for Parents, a peer mentoring group, which provides parent allies to help navigate the child assistance program.

The goal is to prevent a crisis rather than coming in after to repair the damage.

Karlene Ponti can be reached at karleneponti@wwub.com or 509-526-8324.

Karlene Ponti began as Special Publications Writer in 1999, work includes Lifestyles, The Weekly and Business Monthly. After Wa-Hi, Ponti attended Whitman and is a UW graduate. Later she was ordained a Christian minister at CDM Spiritual Teaching Center.