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Wheeler Clinic receives grant to continue early childhood development services 

Wheeler Clinic announced Tuesday a new $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration to expand early development services, screenings and follow-up care for patients under 5 years old and their families for the next two years. The grant funds will be applied to “HealthySteps” as part of the Wheeler Integrated Pediatric Early Development Services program. 

The program is available to all patients under the age of 5 receiving pediatric services and it is offered at the community health centers in Bristol, Hartford, New Britain, Plainville and Waterbury. 

“The COVID-19 crisis has had extensive and long-term impact on child development for many, especially children from medically underserved communities,” said Sabrina Trocchi, Wheeler’s president and chief executive officer, in the press release. “This expansion of services for our youngest and most vulnerable population provides an opportunity to more quickly assess needs and engage comprehensive supports for all members of the family.”

What is “HealthySteps”? 

Melissa Mendez, Wheeler’s director of early childhood programs, described HealthySteps as a primary care model that places early childhood development specialists at pediatric clinics to provide support for patients under 5 during screening assessments, consultations or making referrals for other services.  

The program was created by national organization Zero to Three. It was first established at Wheeler in 2019 after the clinic received a grant from the Substance Use and Mental Health Administration, according to the press release. Wheeler was the first group in Connecticut to implement this model.

What do the specialists do? 

Mendez said that all the specialists have master’s degrees in a field related to social work, child development or family relations. 

The specialists can assist with a variety of screenings to detect developmental issues for the patient, including fine motor skills, autism spectrum disorders and language development. For the parents, the specialists can screen for parental depression, social determinants of health and basic needs. 

Mendez explained that the specialists also provide support by supplying educational materials and books, attending appointments and helping in follow-up consultations. They can also work with patient’s families to address individual day-to-day challenges, such as food insecurity and transportation. 

For example, Mendez said that if a family missed an appointment due to transportation issues, the specialist will help them get transportation vouchers and reschedule the appointment. 

“The model is that you have someone in the clinic who is seeing the family from a more holistic perspective rather than just from a medical lens. We can’t expect [medical staff] to be social workers,” Mendez explained. “Having someone there who has that child and family’s service background and understands what the needs of these families are has made a big difference.” 

What is the most recent grant for? 

In August, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration awarded approximately $30 million to 151 health centers through the Early Childhood Development grant program. The Wheeler Clinic is one of four organizations in Connecticut to receive a grant, joining Community Health Center in Middletown, Fair Haven Community Health Clinic in New Haven, and Norwalk Community Health Center in Norwalk.

Mendez said that the original funding source for HealthySteps is set to expire in September, which is when the new grant kicks in. The two-year grant of $400,000 will be used to hire a third HealthySteps specialist and expand services. 

What’s the impact? 

Since the program launched in 2019, Mendez said they’ve been able to increase the number of patients receiving early developmental screenings and follow-up care. 

“We’re hand holding for [the families] so they feel supported, they can get their needs met and, at the end of the day, so their kids are healthy,” Mendez said. “[HealthySteps] is an acknowledgement that some families need a higher level of support in a pediatric setting.” 



Health Equity reporter Cris Villalonga-Vivoni is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. They can be reached at cvillalonga@record-journal.com and 203-317-2448. Support RFA reporters at the Record-Journal through a donation at https://bit.ly/3Pdb0re.


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