A Navajo mom is pictured outside her home in Arizona

Project Spotlight

Family Spirit

How an Indigenous solution to supporting caregivers during pregnancy and early childhood changed a Navajo mom's life

October 31, 2023

How an Indigenous solution to supporting caregivers during pregnancy and early childhood changed a Navajo mom's life

Charmaine was unprepared for life as a mom. Her home on the Navajo reservation in Chinle, Arizona, had no electricity or running water, and she had no reliable transportation to get groceries or supplies. How could she raise a healthy child with such obstacles before her? 

“Back then, I was still learning how to embrace my motherhood,” Charmaine says, recalling a struggle that she found, at the time, overwhelming.

Enter Crystal Kee, also a Navajo woman from Chinle, who at the time worked as a senior trainer for Family Spirit, a program now supported by Comic Relief US, to help mothers like Charmaine. Crystal’s work as a home visitor would begin before a child is born, when the mother is in her second or third trimester. Her job was to support families with parenthood skills, a partnership that continues until the child is three years old. Family Spirit is both evidence-based and culturally tailored.  Caregivers gain knowledge and skills to achieve optimum development for their children across the domains of physical, cognitive, social-emotional, and behavioral health.

“Crystal Kee from Family Spirit helped me {as a} mommy when I wasn’t very strong,” Charmaine recalls. “She helped me to raise [my children} right, and raise myself right, and [change my] view and outlook on life in a positive way.” 

Crystal has always viewed the importance of tribal identity at the heart of her work with mothers like Charmaine. “Being Navajo, I have a kinship with everyone here,” she says, “Ah, you’re my brother, you’re my sister, you’re my grandma. This makes us responsible for one another.”  

“It’s a home visiting program, a family strengthening program,” Crystal says, designed to teach families how to do their best for themselves and their children. “These families have a lot of challenges, with poverty being probably at the top.”

In 2022, Native Americans had the highest poverty rate among all minority groups in the United States. Comic Relief US is committed to providing quality, equitable, culturally sensitive physical and mental health care to young Native Americans like Charmaine and her children.   

Indigenous home visitors like Crystal Kee and the Family Spirit program, which was developed by the Johns Hopkins Center for Indigenous Health in partnership with tribal communities, are critical resources for people like Charmaine and other families living on reservations and across other tribal communities in the U.S.  Proof of the program’s success can be seen on the individual level, like how much has changed for Charmaine since she began working with Crystal, and on a broader scale through three randomized controlled trials that proved the efficacy of the program. 

“Back then, I was ashamed of where I came from as a Native American,” Charmaine says. “You know, we’re at the bottom of the list.” 

But her view has changed. Now, “I can stand up and say, ‘I am a Native American, and I love being a Native American, and that’s my land.’” 

After her services from Family Spirit, Charmaine shared that she and her husband are planning their future as proud parents. “We’re building a home, and we’re going to get a horse. It will have an impact on [my] children: ‘This is what mommy taught us.’ It’s going to go to their grandkids and the next generation of kids.” 

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Red Nose Day in School is a free educational program designed to teach young students about the impacts of poverty on children, foster empathy building, and celebrate acts of kindness in the classroom and beyond. This year-round program includes lesson plans, routines and videos to help students practice core reading and writing skills while also helping them realize their power to make a difference for others. Learn more.