Jan. 11, 2014 @ 08:07 PM

George Hightower and Roberta Cruz call their new baby boy a beautiful surprise.

The couple found out Roberta was pregnant last May, amid George finishing medical school at the University of California-San Diego and conducting post-doctoral research at Duke, a move to Durham with no car, and Roberta’s career switch from education to food preparation.

Being a young Durham family with no relatives nearby, they began to formulate a network of resources, from neighbors to midwives, to prepare for the birth.

When a nurse knocked on their door when tiny Augustavo was only 7 weeks old, not only did she weigh their baby and answer questions about skin irritation and coughing, but she asked Roberta, “How are you doing?”

“It was really nice to connect with another mother, an experienced mother, and someone who’s done it,” Roberta said.

All new mothers in Durham County are eligible for Durham Connects, a free program operated by the Center for Child and Family Health that sends nurses into the homes of newborns and their mothers. Since the pilot program began in 2008, the staff has seen thousands of families and average around 25 new visits a week.

A recent study by Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy found that for every $1 spent on home visits, $3 were saved in health care costs. The program spends about $700 on each family.

The research also found that participating families had lower rates of anxiety, safer home environments and displayed more positive parenting behavior. Nurse home visits also cut down on visits to emergency rooms for primary care, since the program encourages a strong relationship between families and their pediatricians.

Durham Connects Program Director Jeannine Sato said when she had her first baby, she was shocked by the lack of community support. She was required to go back to work after six weeks, which she acknowledges is a luxury compared to mothers who have to return to their jobs after only a few days. Sato’s baby cried a lot. Her anxiety mounted.

“This is actually good for the community, when parents are well-supported,” she said about community-wide programs such as Durham Connects. “They’re better workers, they’re better parents, their kids are going to be more productive society members. … Trying to create this program is to change the thinking of how people feel about what parents deserve in this country, because I think they deserve a lot more than they’re getting.”

The Durham Connects office in the downtown N.C. Mutual Life building has received calls from other cities around the country looking to imitate the program.

These nurses are connecting moms with every available resource, from mom support groups to food stamps, and answering questions ranging from breastfeeding to bathing to clipping the baby’s fingernails.

The program has even helped families battling homelessness, domestic abuse and post-partum depression.

“Over the years, I feel like we’ve saved many lives by being at the right place at the right time, where this baby was really sick and maybe they didn’t recognize it,” Sato said. “ … Or I know at least a couple cases where the mom had such severe post-partum depression that there was a risk to her life or the baby’s life. And the person that they called was the Durham Connects nurse, which was pretty telling, because sometimes they don’t have anyone else.”

Durham Connects assistant family support worker Heather Trimarchi remembers Durham Connects staff visiting her hospital room at Duke Regional two years ago, right after she gave birth to her daughter, Isabella, and signed her up for the program.

Trimarchi said she was having trouble breastfeeding at the time, and the hospital was pressuring her to keep trying. During the home visit, the Durham Connects nurse told her it was OK to use formula.

“Mainly it was a relief, that you’re still a good mother even if you don’t breastfeed,” Trimarchi said.

Her daughter is now 2 years old, and Trimarchi is now the person who visits new moms in hospitals and signs them up.

At George and Roberta’s house, Augustavo is now 9 weeks old. He has a little scratch on his button nose from his curious fingernails and a head full of black hair.

From neighbors to nurses in the home, the community support is helping them define who they are now as a family, a team of three.

“This whole journey has been full of surprises, but it’s at the right time for us,” Roberta said.