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Sierra Williams, pictured seated at right, speaking to a client.
Image Source: 
photo courtesy: Hennepin County Human Services

SPOTLIGHT: Hennepin-University Partnership

Publication date: 
November 16, 2019

As a young, single mom in north Minneapolis, Sierra Williams (pictured seated at right, speaking to a client) had a difficult time trying to learn about and apply for the public services for which she qualified.

She stuck with it, though, and her natural gift for connecting with people and asking the right questions paid off. Today she works as a Parent Connector through an ICI pilot program that’s part of Hennepin-University Partnership (HUP), which brings University of Minnesota researchers and others together with Hennepin County programs. She’s also employed as a breastfeeding coach with the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program and as a doula working for women who have been affected by incarceration.

Through all of these roles, Williams has built a network of relationships and trust in her community that she relies on to help increase the utilization rates of public assistance programs in underserved communities.

So far, as part of the HUP program, Williams has participated in about a dozen community resource fairs, telling participants about ICI’s early intervention programs to detect signs of developmental delays and Autism Spectrum Disorder, along with other public services.

“I’ve been there and I don’t frown upon anyone who is seeking help,” Williams said. “I help people to not feel embarrassed or uncomfortable, by just having an attitude of, ‘Your needs aren’t being met, so how can we get that done?’’’

The pilot program is still in an early stage, but it appears to be working as a “warm hand-off” to connect more families with the services for which they qualify to help them in the critical early childhood years, said Jennifer Hall-Lande, the ICI principal investigator on the HUP Project who leads ICI’s Learn the Signs, Act Early efforts.

“Sierra is very well-connected in the community and she talks parent-to-parent about early intervention and other topics,” said Hall-Lande. “One of our first takeaways is that when parents feel comfortable receiving these messages from other parents in their community, they’re more likely to find services and supports for their children. We need to go a step further in supporting families than simply handing out a brochure.”

Parent Connectors builds relationships and trust first, then connects people to services, she said.

It’s not uncommon for Williams to help fill an immediate need first, so a parent can be in a position to act on other priorities, such as child development milestones.

Recently, for example, she gave a double stroller she had on hand from previously helping other parents to a mom of twins who had just arrived in Minneapolis, fleeing an abusive situation.

“That stemmed from working with incarcerated women coming out and having a need for clothing and other basics,” Williams said. “If they feel good on the outside and have the things they need immediately, it seeps in and they’ll want to get back into society.”