MANKATO — A local nonprofit, health care provider and county continued a partnership to fund an expanded program for parents this year.

The First Steps/Next Steps program, housed within Mankato Clinic sites, is designed to help parents find housing services, health insurance options, hunger programs and other free to low-cost resources in the community.

Under the partnership, doctors can better identify health barriers and connect patients to programs addressing the problems, said Dr. Katie Smentek, a pediatrician at Mankato Clinic.

“Because we have someone who can help and someone who can coordinate resources, we’re asking those questions to every patient that walks in the door now,” she said.

While doctors could previously ask questions about housing and food security, there wasn’t an easy way to direct patients to the services they needed. The program puts coordinators within the clinic setting, allowing for more direct, on the spot referrals — the program is available to patients receiving care elsewhere as well.

“Much of people’s health happens outside of our clinic; it’s their access to food, housing and education,” Smentek said. “Now we can try to help improve some of those elements.”

First Steps has been around since about 2011, focusing mainly on new and expecting parents. Next Steps began as a home-visit program within it before expanding last year to serve more parents of children up to age 5.

Home visits will still happen, but expanding the program’s presence in the clinic helps build trust between patients and the coordinators, said Elizabeth Harstad of the Greater Mankato Area United Way.

“They (patients) really trust the referral from their doctor, and it’s really easy to meet their coordinator because they’re right on site,” she said.

The United Way came up with the initiative and is its largest supporter in 2020, contributing $92,000 worth of donations. The Mankato Clinic Foundation bumped up its support when the program expanded last year, pledging $35,000 in 2020.

Blue Earth County, meanwhile, provides fiscal and in-kind support. Some of the programs parents would be eligible for are administered through the county.

First Steps Coordinator Teresa Freitag had an average caseload of 182 clients last year, according to the United Way. Freitag is based within the clinic’s obstetrics and gynecology department, while Next Steps Coordinator Meg Rialson’s office is in the Mankato Clinic Children’s Health Center.

Smentek said she’s hopeful the expansion covering parents of young children will lead to similarly good results as those for new and expecting parents.

“We saw huge improvement with first steps and we felt like we needed to replicate that once children are out of infancy,” she said. “When you see something work, you want to try and make it work in other places.”

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