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HAMMOND | In a cozy living room, with Sprout playing on TV and "Shrek"-themed party decorations hanging from the wall, Stephanie Clayton took out a children's book about gardening.

"It says, 'First, we plant the tomato seeds,' What happens next?" Clayton asked Lily Pabey, 3.

"Water the seeds?" Lily said, as her mom, Elizabeth, who was pregnant, sat on a couch beside them.

"Water the seeds -- that's right, you water the seeds!" Clayton exclaimed, her enthusiasm infectious. "We add water and sunshine on the plant and the plant grows." Clayton used the opportunity to ask Elizabeth how her own home-gardening efforts were going.

Clayton's next book was called "I'm a Big Sister." "Have you talked to her about the new baby and everything?" she asked Elizabeth.

"I'm going to have a little sister," Lily said, her 1-year-old brother, Jude, running around the room wearing a "Chicks Dig Me" T-shirt.

For more than three years, Clayton, a family support specialist with Mental Health America of Lake County, has been visiting the Pabeys' Hammond home, helping with parenting and child-development tips as part of the Healthy Families initiative.

"We've all become close. My daughter looks forward to seeing Stephanie," said Elizabeth Pabey, 30. "She's met my entire family."

Clayton is one of 60 women working for the local nonprofit to make sure Northwest Indiana kids get the best start in life. "They go above and beyond to ensure babies a bright future by empowering parents with the knowledge and skills they need," said Renae Vania-Tomczak, executive director of Mental Health America of Lake County, which also offers the Parents as Teachers and Empowers Teens as Parents programs.

Nurturing youth and families isn't just Clayton's job -- it's her life. During her off hours, she helps with a teen group at her church. She exudes passion both when she's on the job and just talking about it.

"If you love working with families, if you love working with children, if you love seeing the growth in families, I would suggest this position," she said. "I love it."

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Back inside the Pabeys' home on the recent day, Clayton brought out some scrap paper and encouraged the 3-year-old to draw.

"Can we draw people, Lily?"

The toddler put facial features on some circles Clayton had made. The social worker clapped. "That's amazing! Who's that?"

"A person"

"Which person?"

"Grandpa."

"That's one for the refrigerator!" Clayton said.

How she got the job: Clayton was studying early-childhood education at Chicago State University when she started growing more interested in the brain and its development. She earned a degree in psychology before working for Chicago Public Schools. After moving to Indiana, she saw the opening for a family support specialist at Mental Health America of Lake County and thought it lined up perfectly with her interests.

What the job pays: The salary range is $26,000 and $33,000 a year, according to Mental Health America of Lake County. Family support specialists often go on to work in higher-paying supervisory or clinical positions.

Job growth: The U.S. Department of Labor predicted that employment of social workers would grow by 19 percent, or faster than the average profession, between 2012 and 2022.

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.