With his hands more than full raising two sons under age 2 on his own, Medford dad Steve Spencer is always excited to see Linda Otto walk through the front door.
On her most recent visit, "Gramma Linda" snuggles baby Johny Riot while Spencer feeds 19-month-old Jaxon Wild his lunch. Both boys are living up to their middle names, Spencer says.
"Linda comes once or twice a week and just hangs out with the kids and asks what I need help with," he says. "She holds the kids. Sometimes she just helps me fold laundry. She's been a big help in letting me have a little time to myself when I need it."
"Sometimes he just needs someone to come in and say, 'You're doing a good job!'" Otto says. "Because he really, really is."
A longtime Court Appointed Special Advocate for abused and neglected children, Otto is on a mission: to help mentor, nurture and support new parents during their children's critical formative years from womb through preschool. And she's marshaling women like her to join in the effort by launching GrandMas2Go.
GrandMas2Go parent coaches will be available at no cost to families and, Otto says, will help rebuild the village on which communities have long relied to create strong families and healthy, happy children.
"Years ago I realized that to help the babies, we have to help the parents, who in most cases were poorly parented, abused and or neglected themselves," Otto says. "To break the cycle and rebuild 'our village' will take a community effort.
"In some cases, families are just spread out and even if they're not dysfunctional, their support system is hundreds of miles away."
GrandMas2Go will provide a natural succession for families who have been served by CASAs, other community support programs or even families who simply have a need for a bigger support system, Otto says.
Otto talks to baby Johny about the importance of bonding and connections as he smiles, then yawns.
"There are 700 synapses — connections between your neurons — every second. Did you know that?" Otto asks Johny. "I bet you did. And they're very important!"
Otto, whose background includes infant massage and working as a doula, says 80 percent of a child's brain is developed by age 4.
As a CASA volunteer, Otto has worked for five years to advocate for abused and neglected infants, often affected by exposure in utero to meth, heroin, opiates, alcohol, stress and poverty.
In her own family, Otto says a niece's pregnancy with triplets showed her, more than ever, the importance of extended families.
"I started doing research on how to best help with these babies. My sister became a 'nanny granny,'" she says. "We don't really support moms in this country.
"We expect them to have babies and go back to work to spend 52 percent of income on daycare."
Ashland resident James Dills says Otto proved invaluable when he and his wife first fostered their son, whom they later adopted.
"When we met Linda through CASA, as first-time parents, she came to our home and taught us how to care for our infant in the best possible way. She taught us about skin-to-skin contact and we received a series of infant massage trainings," Dills says.
"I'll always be appreciative of what Linda did for us when we were brand new foster parents. A lot of young parents would really benefit from the support of caring and knowledgeable people who have been through it all before."
Dills adds, "I think it's a cultural thing. In a lot of places in the world, families and extended families all come together to help one another, but we're expected to just do it on our own. I think we benefit from having that bigger community. ... I hope a lot of people volunteer and get involved."
From baby snuggling and laundry duty to advice about colicky babies or even helping with errands, Otto says she's on the search for a few good grannies.
Grants from CareOregon, Southern Oregon Early Learning Services and United Way have helped Otto put a plan in place. Launching next month, GrandMas2Go will start by training 15 to 20 mentors for the local community.
"If we get a baker's dozen that sticks, we'll call that a success," Otto says.
Those interested in becoming a GrandMa2Go can call Otto at 541-840-2604. For more information, visit grandmas2go.org.
Reach Medford freelance writer Buffy Pollock at firstname.lastname@example.org.