First 5 Lake’s 2021 COVID-19 Impact Report Reveals the Struggles of Local Families and the Power of Protective Factors

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted families with young children in Lake County?” That was the question the First 5 Lake Commission sought to answer when they published a lengthy online survey in June. In the process of sifting through the 269 individual responses to the survey, they not only gained insight into the struggles faced by Lake County families, but they also discovered many unsung heroes in the community that stepped up and made things better for many. The results of the survey have been summarized in the agency’s recently released, 2021 COVID-19 Impact Report, which is now posted in full on their website (www.firstfivelake.org).

First 5 Lake staff worked with evaluation consultants from Social Entrepreneurs, Inc. (SEI) to create and launch the comprehensive online survey. The survey link was then shared with the community through targeted emails to families of young children who participate in the Imagination Library program, as well as through social media posts. Families who completed the survey were invited to enter a drawing for a Wal-Mart gift card or a Golden Poppy Annual Pass to California State Parks.

The survey asked participating Lake County parents of young children (birth to age 5) about a list of common needs and whether their family had trouble meeting those needs during the past year of the pandemic. Families were then asked to indicate whether the need or barrier was a big problem or a small problem and if their need was met. Respondents who indicated their needs were met were asked to provide information about how they went about meeting their needs, whether it was their own resilience, local nonprofit organizations or government agencies, or their own social connections with family and friends that provided the needed support. It was important to the First 5 Lake Commission to not only hear about and understand the struggles families were facing but also to find out which systems and supports in the community were having a positive impact. First 5 Lake’s Strategic Plan is built around the Strengthening Families© Protective Factors Framework, and the Commission continually seeks to learn more about how the Protective Factors are present and effective within the community, keeping children safe and families strong. With this in mind, the responses to the survey were categorized by the Protective Factors which include parental resilience, concrete support in times of need, social connections, knowledge of child development, and the social-emotional competence of children.

The Areas of Greatest Struggle

The eleven areas of need included in the survey were childcare, children’s medical care, employment, groceries/food (including baby formula), housing, internet access, personal hygiene items (including diapers), rent/mortgage, transportation, and utilities. Analysis of the survey data revealed that the area where the greatest number of families expressed difficulty during the past year of the pandemic was in paying for utilities (106 out of 269), and 44% of those families noted that this was a big problem for them. This was followed by families reporting they had trouble with employment (105), families reporting trouble meeting childcare or daycare needs (98), and families reporting trouble paying rent or mortgage (95).

Needs That Went Unmet

The needs that went unmet most frequently in the past year of the pandemic, according to survey respondents, were employment (61%) and childcare (51%). Other frequently unmet needs included getting children in for medical appointments (53% of those with this need, say it went unmet), and trouble with internet access (44% of respondents with this need were unable to resolve it). “We’re scraping by. We had to pay rent and can’t pay our utilities,” shared one survey respondent. Another responded, “Our daycare closed. We had to find more expensive private childcare.” Still another noted, “We were able to get enough to feed our family but are still having a hard time affording food.” One of the more desperate situations described by survey respondents was from a parent who struggled to find childcare for her children so that she could see a doctor. COVID restrictions at the time did not allow anyone to accompany a patient to appointments, so this parent had to keep cancelling and rescheduling her medical appointments when childcare was unavailable. She described experiencing a mental breakdown as a result.

Community Heroes Emerge

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” This quote from Fred Rogers, which he shared on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood many years ago, is one that many parents have shared with their children. It turns out it is excellent advice for grown-ups as well. When asked about where they found help with specific struggles during the pandemic, 85 parents (the most by far) shared that it was their social connections with friends and family members that helped the most. Friends and family members stepped up to help with financial support, babysitting, sharing resources, and in many other ways to help parents of Lake County’s youngest children throughout the pandemic, and continue to do so. The next largest number of respondents (54) described relying on their own resilience and perseverance to overcome obstacles.  Comments included,

  • I sold our belongings and worked double shifts.”
  • My husband worked a lot of overtime to make sure we could pay our mortgage.”
  • My husband stopped working to stay home with our child.”
  • We used our own savings and depended on credit cards much more than we normally would have.”
  • My partner was able to work a ton of side jobs in a neighborhood.”
  • “I just had to go back to work sooner than I wanted after having a baby (10 weeks).”
  • We were able to set up reasonable payment plans with our utility companies and make supplemental payments as finances allowed.”

For those who described finding concrete support in their times of need through community resources, the most frequently mentioned local heroes were: Lake County Department of Social Services, E-Center WIC, Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), Redwood Empire Food Bank, North Coast Opportunities, Lake County Tribal Health Consortium, and local and regional Tribes including Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians.

Crystal Markytan, Director of Lake County Department of Social Services and First 5 Lake Commissioner, notes “I believe this data is vital in understanding how our community can best support future generations by focusing on protective factors and how a community can come together to support the needs of families, allowing our children to most successfully develop into their adult selves.” First 5 Lake Executive Director, Carla Ritz, agreed stating, “The findings of this survey clearly depict the very real struggles of many Lake County families with young children over the past year and demonstrate the power of protective factors in buffering the stress and challenges of the pandemic. As we build back through and from this difficult season, it is my hope that funding for perinatal and early childhood mental health, accessibility of childcare, and other family supports will be prioritized as important investments in the future of our county.”

Parents of children under age five can find information about community resources that may benefit their families at www.smartstartlakecounty.org and can get a personalized list of programs and services they are likely to qualify for at www.smartstartwizard.org. For more information about these and other First 5 Lake initiatives, email gepperson.first5@lakecountyca.gov, call 707-263-6169 or visit www.firstfivelake.org.

Since its inception in 2000, First 5 Lake has invested in programs, services and systems change efforts designed to help thousands of Lake County children grow up healthy and ready to succeed in school and life. Current First 5 Lake Commissioners are: Tina Scott (Chair), Carly Sherman (Vice-Chair), Carol Huchingson, Brock Falkenberg, Crystal Markytan, Allison Panella, Fawn Rave, Justin Gaddy, and Tarin Benson.

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