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Antoinette Rodriguez’s last in-person home visit was March 6, when she drove 50 miles to see a mother and her eight children in Standing Rock, on the Navajo Nation. Five days later, the mother inexplicably disappeared, leaving the children’s grandmother and uncle to care for the kids. 

Rodriguez knew nothing about that when she called the mom’s cell phone a month later for an update. She only found out the next time she visited in person.

“She was telling me the children were OK; they were growing,” said Rodriguez, a home visitor with Avenues Early Childhood Services in Gallup. “She said she started to potty-train the twins. I never would have thought she was not home.” She still hasn’t returned.

This is one of many struggles that home visitors like Rodriguez face during a pandemic that has replaced home visits with phone check-ins and text messages. Home visiting — one of the most effective efforts in New Mexico’s determination to improve child well-being — went through significant changes in a matter of days.

Avenues, a nonprofit that provides home-visiting services to 105 families, has risen to the occasion by shifting its strategy. Now, in addition to counseling young parents on early childhood development, conducting risk screenings, and referring families to community supports, home visitors also distribute food, water, personal protective equipment and sanitation supply boxes. To meet the growing need, Avenues has partnered with McKinley Mutual Aid, an umbrella group made up of five community-based nonprofits in McKinley County.  

It hasn’t been easy. After the Navajo Nation imposed a weekend curfew, Avenues lost touch with about 10 percent of the families it usually visited in person. When phone calls and text messages went unanswered, the home visitors sent handwritten letters.

The pandemic brought to light the true meaning of “disadvantaged.” The lack of cell phone towers and poor internet access have proved especially challenging at a time when everyone in New Mexico is being asked to connect online. Instead of conducting home visits over Zoom or FaceTime, Avenues recognized it had to get back to basics and help clients pay their phone bills and purchase food and diapers.

 “There’s a lot of stuff that goes along with poverty — all those social issues that come up because of your zip code,” said Regina Huffman, co-founder and executive director of Avenues. “I’ve heard a lot of blaming. I’ve heard a lot of, ‘If they keep the Native people on the reservation, we won’t have so much sickness.’ You try living in the conditions that these people live in. It’s multigenerational people in a hogan. How do you space out there? You can’t.” 

Despite the new stresses, home visitors have noticed some unexpected benefits to the shelter-at-home directives, including families spending more time together and siblings getting closer.

The organization also wonders whether a new reliance on phone calls and text messages may prove more sustainable in the long run. If problems of connectivity and infrastructure are ever resolved in remote parts of New Mexico, Zoom visits could save a home visitor from driving nearly 600 miles a month, and prevent burnout.

Clients might not always answer the phone or want contact with a home visitor. 

“But we all need someone,” said Rodriguez. “ I am that person for them. I am someone to talk to. I make them my priority.”

Juliana Brenner was born and raised in Santa Fe, N.M., and discovered her passion for journalism as a staff writer for Generation Next of the Santa Fe New Mexican. She is a rising senior at Barnard College...