Merlene Davis: Fayette County WIC supervisor leads program that helped her, her son

knows getting a good start to life pays long-term benefits.
Nkeshia Coleman knows getting a good start to life pays long-term benefits. Herald-Leader

When Francine Crump became a mother in 1985, she needed help. Her baby's father was off at college playing basketball and the job she had just didn't make ends meet comfortably.

Crump signed up for the WIC program in order to ensure her infant daughter would have formula, cereal and baby food.

WIC, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, is a federal program for low-income pregnant and post-partum women and their children up to age 5 who are in need of nutritional assistance.

Crump fit that description and the assistance she received helped her to raise a healthy daughter.

That daughter, Nkeshia Coleman, was a senior at the University of Kentucky seven years ago when she gave birth to her son, Keshaun.

Because she received a great nutritional start from the WIC program, she signed up for it as well, to give her son the same leg-up that she had received.

However, Coleman, a single parent, got more than she had hoped for. She was receiving the food assistance for her son when she noticed he was experiencing developmental problems when he was about 15 months old. A WIC counselor referred her to the First Steps program which provides services to children with developmental disabilities from birth to age 3 regardless of income.

Keshaun was later diagnosed with autism.

"Programs like this are meant to benefit people who just need help," Coleman said. "I am so grateful for the early intervention."

Those results, for Crump and Coleman, had to be what a group of physicians had envisioned in 1968 when they met with officials from the Department of Health Education and Welfare. They reported seeing pregnant women and children with illnesses that were caused by a lack of food. Four years later, a two-year pilot program was initiated called WIC.

The program was so successful, the first WIC site officially opened in Pineville, Ky., in 1974.

For 40 years, mothers and young children nationwide have been benefiting from the WIC program and oversight of WIC counselors.

Despite those benefits and despite the need for nutritious food to keep pregnant mothers and their children healthy, recipients sometimes experience condemnation and cold shoulders from those who see them use their WIC benefits at grocery store checkouts.

I don't recall receiving WIC benefits when I gave birth to my daughter in the mid 1970s. I did receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) which is now essentially the Kentucky Transitional Assistance Program (K-TAP). And I received food stamps. Both programs were a godsend.

But whenever I bought food using the old food stamp coupons, inevitably someone would make disparaging remarks loud enough for me to hear.

Coleman said the same thing happened with her just a few years ago.

"People would make comments and roll their eyes," Coleman said. "Even the cashiers. And some of them would yell out that they had someone on WIC or they would tell you to move to another lane. It was bad."

But God has a sense of humor.

Coleman is now the nutrition services team leader, or WIC supervisor, at the Fayette County Health Department. In Kentucky, WIC is administered through the Department of Pubic Health.

Coleman went from needing the program as an infant and as a single mother, to running it in Fayette County.

Now, when she learns that a client has come up against negative comments especially from store clerks, she acts to correct it, going so far as to call store managers.

"Every time I hear something like that, it takes me back to what I went through," she said. "I take it personally. So I do what I can to make sure it is not happening to other people."

Sometimes clients who need the program don't come in either because of pride or because they want to avoid the negative comments, Coleman said.

Her mother had something to say about that: "What I would love to tell them is you do what you have to do not only to take care of yourself but your child," Crump said. "No one offered me a can of milk or Pampers or cereal. If they had a problem with it (her receiving WIC), they kept it to themselves."

A lot of pregnant women don't know they can receive WIC benefits, Coleman said. "It can prevent pre-term labor," she said, "and it allows them to have the proper vitamins and minerals that they need. They qualify based on income."

If, after giving birth, the mother chooses to breast feed, she can stay on the program for a year. If she chose to use formula totally or at a higher percentage than breast milk, she can stay on for six months. The children can remain on the program until age 5.

"We make sure to let people know they are not to be judged," Coleman said. "We are here to better ourselves. They come in here and beat themselves up and I tell them it is not about that.

"I let clients know I have been where they are and that this is not the end," she said. "It changes their whole outlook when they know you have been where they are."

It's called walking a mile in someone's shoes. More of us need to do that.