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Wearing his cap and gown earlier this month in Lake Station, Jesse Woolsey's mom had to bribe him to get his diploma. With bubbles.

Jesse is 2. So he also ran around the room during the graduation ceremony like a "wild boy," said his mother, Amber.

The mom and son were celebrating on a Friday night at Bellaboo's Play and Discovery Center as the first graduates of a home visitation program designed to make sure kids live and thrive to age 2 — and beyond.

Nurse-Family Partnership, a free home-visitation program founded in New York state in the 1970s, came to Lake County in early 2016. The initiative supports first-time, Medicaid-eligible mothers from early in their pregnancy until their children turn 2.

The Dec. 14 ceremony was for the Lake County agency's first graduating classes: the 10 women who started with and made it all the way to the end of the program.

"That was a huge milestone for us," said Tameka Warren, nursing supervisor for Nurse-Family Partnership of Lake County, which is based in Merrillville and operated by Goodwill of Central & Southern Indiana. "We were honored to have moms stay with us for two years and see them grow."

The nonprofit home-visitation agency was brought to the Region two years ago, with the help of a $2 million grant from the Indiana State Department of Health, in the hopes of reducing Lake County's large number of infant deaths.

In 2017, babies died in the county at a rate of 10 1/2 for every 1,000 live births, the highest in the state. That is above Indiana's infant mortality rate of 7.3, which itself is the seventh highest in the nation.

Nurse-Family Partnership aims to keep babies healthy by ensuring their moms receive prenatal care, quit smoking, breastfeed and provide safe sleeping environments. The organization also connects the women with housing resources, fresh produce, day-care services and educational opportunities.

Warren said the agency has been successful in getting women to go to prenatal appointments, stop using cigarettes, vaccinate their kids and initiate breastfeeding, but would like to see improvements in its number of premature births and low birth weights, two of the leading causes of infant deaths.

The program serves its largest number of women in Gary, but also sends its registered nurses into the homes of families in Cedar Lake, Crown Point, Dyer, East Chicago, Griffith, Hammond, Highland, Hobart, Lake Station, Merrillville, Munster, Schererville, Whiting and Winfield.

Black babies die in Indiana at more than twice the rate of white infants. Of Nurse-Family Partnership's 151 clients in Lake County, 86 are black.

A grateful graduate

Amber Woolsey, now 38, got referred to Nurse-Family Partnership at a local office for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program. She had just moved in with her brother in Schererville, having relocated from Michigan after losing contact with her boyfriend at three months pregnant.

She felt alone. Her visiting nurse made her less so, Woolsey said.

"She was probably the only person that consistently was a part of my life during that time that was helping me," Woolsey said of her nurse, DJ Shine. "I had nobody else to talk to."

Shine helped Woolsey find a doctor and hospital in her insurance network, navigate the chronic pain and other health issues that came with a complicated pregnancy, breastfeed, and check that Jesse got all his shots and was at a healthy height and weight. The support went beyond just medical needs.

"Sometimes it helps to have another female walk beside you walk you through those steps," said Woolsey, who left home at age 18. "I think without her I would have been a lot more stressed, probably had more to worry about, more to be down about, and really just she kind of gave me confidence."

Woolsey has since gotten her own place in Valparaiso and found a day care she and Jesse like. A professional photographer, she had been working in accounts receivable but is currently looking for a new job.

As for Jesse?

"He loves trains and cars, and he just loves Elmo and dinosaurs," Woolsey said.

"He's actually very intelligent for his age. He knows how to use my phone and turn the TV on and off and the DVD player. He's just a very intuitive, bright little boy. When you have kids it's awesome to see things about them that are like yourself. I remember my mom saying, 'I hope you have a child like you.' I do and then some. He's very athletic for his age.

"I'm just really grateful that despite the situation, I'm able to have the gift of being a parent. I feel like it's a blessing, as much as everything's a blessing. I feel like I'm blessed because of him.

"He's quite the ladies' man, very bubbly, very outgoing, can't sit still — he's 2."

And despite his trepidations, he was the first one down the aisle earlier this month at Bellaboo's.

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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.