Community profile: If babies did have care labels, Sandy Swanson just might be one of the authors
Long-time Family Visitor Programs director getting set to retire after 34 years
Sandy Swanson spent plenty of time on the treatment side of child abuse and neglect during her formative years as a nurse, but the bulk of her career has been focused on prevention.
As a result of her 34 years directing the Glenwood Springs-based Family Visitor Programs, many thousands of babies from Aspen to Parachute had a chance at a better life than they might have had otherwise.
“If you can prevent disease of any kind — if you can prevent cancer, for instance — isn’t that a lot better than treating it?” Swanson offers.
The same is true when it comes to giving young parents the knowledge and resources they need to raise babies to become healthy children and adults, she said.
Swanson, who has had one of the longest tenures of any nonprofit human service organization director in the region, is set to retire later this year.
She took some time recently to reflect on her long career — from working as a pediatric nurse in New York City and Chicago to her eventual work on the prevention side as a public health nurse and later directing the Family Visitor Programs.
Swanson has definitely seen the worst side of things when it comes to children’s health.
After graduating from Villanova University with a nursing degree, she initially worked as a psychiatric nurse at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City.
“That was a very stressful thing to do right out of school, especially working nights on the psychiatric unit,” she said.
But the big-city setting offered plenty of opportunities.
Swanson soon went to work in the high-risk maternal health program at New York Medical College, which was on the front end of ultrasound research at the time.
She later began working for New York Health and Hospitals as the nursing supervisor for maternal child health and ambulatory services in East Harlem, and again worked in that arena at Children’s Hospital in Chicago.
As one might imagine, the rate of maternal health problems, birth defects, child abuse and neglect is high in the poor inner-city neighborhoods, Swanson said.
Her work in the pediatric emergency room was especially eye-opening.
“I saw a lot of issues that unfortunately got in the way of bringing up babies,” Swanson said. “I began to really see that, just because of a lack of knowledge and poverty, children were being abused and neglected.
“I saw a lot of children who could have had a better life experience if the parents would have just had someone spend some time with them.”
It was at Children’s Hospital in Chicago that she met her husband, Steve, who in 1978 accepted the job as chief financial officer at Aspen Valley Hospital.
The couple moved to Emma, where they lived and raised their own family before she and Steve moved to Glenwood Springs in 2015.
The right fit
Sandy found work as a public health nurse for Aspen Community Health and in some of the private practices in Aspen. After raising their two sons, she took a nursing refresher course at Valley View Hospital with the intention of becoming a floor nurse again.
“The day I graduated, I got offered this job,” Swanson said of her decision in 1987 to take the executive director’s position at the Family Visitor Programs instead.
“It just seemed to fit, because it was prevention,” she said.
“I wasn’t dealing with the after fact.” Instead, “it was about what we could provide for parents, to prevent these experiences that the kids just didn’t thrive in.
“Our job is to be nurturing; to say, ‘here are some options.’”
Swanson became the third director of the still relatively new organization that got its start in 1983 with a Colorado Department of Health block grant.
At the time, in the aftermath of the 1982 oil shale bust, the concern was that families would be stranded in Garfield County without sufficient resources to get back on their feet.
When the grant money ran out, the decision was made to keep the Family Visitor Programs going as its own nonprofit organization, which was established in 1986.
With its motto, “Because babies don’t come with care labels,” the goal was to provide family visits to make sure parents had the help they needed to raise children from birth through their development years to young adulthood.
About the same time Swanson took the helm as director, there was growing research into evidence-based models around child abuse prevention and the value of family mentoring through regular visitations.
The Kemp Center in Denver did some of that initial research, which contributed to the formation of Healthy Families America, but early on the concept was slow to come to Colorado, Swanson said.
“For a good 5 or 10 years, it was a real challenge to find funding and we’d have to explain why it’s important to help parents achieve what they want to achieve for their children, and why we provide the services we provide,” she said.
When she first began with the Family Visitor Programs, she did some home visits herself.
“It was a way for me to understand the model … and gave me a really good feel for what the staff was going through, and how best to supervise them,” Swanson said.
She remains an active participant in the routine group sessions and case reviews, as the job of certified visitors has become more specialized with extensive training and expense involved.
A larger network
As the Healthy Families model began to coalesce, the Family Visitor Programs, through Swanson and her team’s work, officially became part of the network in 2011.
The organization has also grown over the past three decades, from its humble beginnings in the chapel loft in the original Valley View Hospital building to its own quarters in the Valley Professional Building on 23rd Street following an extensive capital campaign in 2002.
Today, the Family Visitor Programs operates with a staff of about 18 people including multiple trained visitors in the three primary programs: Healthy Families, Partners for a Healthy Baby and the Nurse-Family Partnership.
The Bright by Three program focuses on child development. Swanson said that’s one of the aspects of the organization’s work that has kept her engaged personally.
“Childhood development is fun, because it’s interactive,” she said.
Swanson said she worried that the COVID-19 pandemic would make it harder for her team to assess children through their early development, but it’s actually been one of the areas where they’ve been able to adapt more readily, she said.
“Our parents have been wonderful about videoing their children and sending us clips, so that if we’re concerned about something we can make an assessment and a referral,” she said.
“For me, just seeing a little video clip of a kid who’s just learning to sit up or learning to walk, you know, it makes you rejuvenated,” Swanson said.
Betsy Bowie, former nurse supervisor and current board member for Family Visitor Programs, said she is forever grateful to Swanson for her many years of service to the organization.
“Babies are the best way to start people,” Bowie said. “Sandy has created a program which has provided so many families in our communities with the opportunity to give their baby the best possible start.
“Sandy brought her considerable experience, passion, competence and compassion to developing the Family Visitor Programs to meet the need for parent support to more than a generation of babies and children in our communities.”
Board President Sally Brands said Swanson will be tough act to follow in terms of finding a new executive director. But the succession plan has been in the works for two years, she said.
“By interviewing all the stakeholders of Family Visitor Programs, staff, funders, government officials and community members, we have begun to interview candidates who we feel will have the same passion, care and vision for young families that Sandy has exhibited for over 30 years,” Brands said.
Swanson said retirement won’t take her and Steve far, as they plan to remain in Glenwood Springs. Frequent visits to Pennsylvania to see their grandchildren are also in the works, along with some painting, pottery and gardening, she said.
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