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County health agency move earns early praise

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Bobbie Stephens hands a recipient of WIC benefits her forms at the newly opened WIC Office on Wednesday, April 09, 2014 in Columbus.
Bobbie Stephens hands a recipient of WIC benefits her forms at the newly opened WIC Office on Wednesday, April 09, 2014 in Columbus.

A county health agency’s new facilities are quickly winning praise from clients during the first weeks after opening at a new Columbus location.

The Bartholomew County Women, Infants and Children clinic provides residents with food assistance, health care referrals and nutrition education aimed at low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women.

Its move was prompted by state Department of Health concerns about the condition of the Bartholomew County Annex, where WIC had been based until late March.

The two-story annex, built in 1928 and originally part of East Columbus School:

Is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Suffers from structural problems.

Has multiple roof leaks, water penetrating through walls, collapsed sewer and plumbing.

Has an old stairs that has been rounded by decades of wear and tear.

Lacks an elevator.

None of those points are issues at the Doug Otto United Way Center, where WIC reopened April 2.

Jessica Gorham, who has a 9-month-old son and has been working with the agency for about 18 months, said the location change has been a good one.

“It’s cleaner and easier to get to,” Gorham said.

“At the old place, it just seemed like there were germs everywhere. And as a mom, you worry about that a lot,” she said.

“The program has been great for us because it saves us a lot of money, especially on baby food, and they helped me figure out how to keep breastfeeding,” Gorham said.

Bobbie Stephens, who has worked as a clerk on the WIC staff for about a year, called the new facility a big upgrade from the Bartholomew County Annex.

“It’s a great piece of history, but it was starting to fall apart, and that’s not a good environment for people we serve,” Stephens said.

“This is more handicapped-accessible, and that’s a big improvement because the (annex’s second-story) steps made it difficult to get to our office.

“It was also tough for new moms with car seats or strollers, and expectant moms, for the same reasons,” she said.

Sarah Renner, WIC director for the state Department of Health, said the new facility is the type of healthy, convenient and handicapped-friendly location the department requested.

New sponsor agency

Accompanying WIC’s location shift was a change in oversight from the Bartholomew County Health Department to the Jeffersonville-based nonprofit agency New Hope Services Inc.

Goals of the move were to provide better access for people with handicaps, improve sanitation and provide a site near a city bus route so clients could come and go easily.

Jean Robbins, director of WIC for New Hope Services, said the new location meets those goals.

“We want to focus on the needs of the family and make it as convenient as possible to access services,” Robbins said.

That means getting people in and out as soon as possible and making WIC visits an enjoyable experience, she said.

In terms of accessibility, “some of the women have told me that they can walk here now,” Stephens said.

Besides assisting mothers, the WIC program also provides nutrition services to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.

New Hope Services assists more than 8,500 WIC clients in six Indiana counties. The nonprofit agency was founded more than 50 years ago to provide assistance to serve children, seniors and disadvantaged adults.

The agency will fund services at the 13th Street facility through a state grant of roughly $225,000.

Program eligibility

Robbins said one out of every two babies in the state utilizes WIC services but said it is not an entitlement program.

“The eligibility requirement is 185 percent of the poverty level,” Robbins said. “In most of our families, both mom and dad are working and many only participate for about 18 months.”

Many families that are eligible for WIC also utilize other assistance programs. Having the new location in the Doug Otto Center provides convenient access to those services as well.

“Now that we are here, we can offer referrals to our families for those services as well,” Robbins said.

“It’s a perfect fit to our concept that allows people to come and get multiple services in one location,” said Doug Otto, general manager of the center.

Among them is Christina McCartney, who last week was making her first visit to WIC. She also visits another agency at the facility.

“I knew right where it was and it helps that the other resources are here as well,” said McCartney, who is 33 weeks’ pregnant.

The WIC program, which is located on the ground floor of the center, is housed in a space formerly used for records storage by Legal Aid.

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