When Sen. Ron Wyden recently spoke at the MountainStar Family Relief Nursery in Prineville, Irdesa Johnson, an audience member, interrupted him.

“Be quiet,” she said.

The senator made a double-take at the frizzy-haired, 3-year-old heckler. The room laughed.

Irdesa is one of 78 children who have been brought out of their shells at the MountainStar relief nursery satellite since its April 2015 opening in Prineville.

“Her speech has gone through the roof,” her mother, Chente Johnson, 33, said with a laugh. The two recently sat in the brightly decorated, classroomlike relief nursery. It’s here Johnson — who has experienced incarceration and homelessness and has battled addiction — regained sole custody of Irdesa, her third-youngest child, through the enhanced visitations MountainStar coordinates in partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services.

The relief nursery is a sanctuary for Johnson and her daughter, who spend 30 hours a month there. Twice a week, Johnson, who has been sober for a year and a half and works full time in Bend, brings her daughter in for three-hour Therapeutic Early Childhood Program sessions that focus on the child’s social and emotional development. When Johnson first brought Irdesa, who was born hypotonic and hypoglycemic, the child’s speech was underdeveloped and she didn’t talk much — particularly around strangers.

“Now she talks so much sometimes I don’t want her to talk anymore,” Johnson said.

In Crook County, where Johnson lives with her four children, ages 8 and under, the child poverty rate is the state’s fifth-highest, according to a 2016 report by Oregon’s Children and Families. The county’s unemployment rate of 6.1 percent is also one of the highest in the state, according the U.S. Department of Labor. These circumstances alone make institutions like MountainStar — which offers child services to parents struggling with poverty, unemployment and abuse issues — invaluable. It’s the only relief nursery in Crook County and one of 32 throughout the state, according to Oregon Association of Relief Nurseries. MountainStar was founded in Bend in 2001; a Madras location opened in 2009.

Irdesa, now a regular chatty Cathy, is among 61 Prineville children ages 4 and under who attended MountainStar’s therapeutic day care program last year, said to program director Jeanna Darnell. Throughout Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties, around 350 children were served by its therapeutic day care program in 2015. Darnell is happy with the traction MountainStar has gained in Prineville. The town’s enthusiasm for MountainStar is evident by its volunteer advisory council, and various community members have helped with projects, such as repainting the building’s exterior.

As it does in Bend and Madras, MountainStar’s Prineville satellite staffs mental health specialists and offers amenities including a clothing closet and a food bank. It also helps families with transportation needs with its recently acquired, baby-seat-equipped passenger van thanks to a donation from local service groups to replace the previous van that had irreparably broken down.

For all its services, Darnell said, “We cringe when we are referred to as a day care.

“(The Prineville location’s success) is a result of great staffing and community support,” she added.

MountainStar’s crowning program is its Therapeutic Early Childhood Program. Each session is similar: After some free play, the children have breakfast with the teachers. There are structured activities where the children socialize with others in their age groups and spend time outside. Other activities include art, music and yoga, Darnell said. After a lunch, the kids head home. Infants between the ages of 1 and 2 convene in groups of six; 2- and 3-year-olds play in groups of eight. There is an intentional low ratio of kids to adults, so a staff member and a volunteer are assigned a single child, she said.

There is vacancy among the 20 therapeutic classroom participation slots in Prineville; when there isn’t, families on a waiting list can participate in its respite services.

Darnell said when parents first come in the door, they’re taking the first step in changing their lives, which is asking for help.

In getting her life and family together, Johnson said asking for help isn’t easy.

“It’s hard. I have rough days, still. But it’s better,” she said.

Johnson, whose first name is pronounced “Shawn-tay,” is the single mother of four children: Zayden, 8; Vanjur, 5; Irdesa, 3; and Sevage, 6 months. She shares custody with her two oldest children’s father. The used car she recently bought makes her daily commutes to Bend feasible, although she relies on her sister and MountainStar’s van service to facilitate Irdesa’s twice weekly pickups and drop-offs at the therapeutic classroom sessions. The hours conflict with those at her call center job.

Johnson estimates that between cooking, cleaning, bathing her children and making sure they get enough “mommy-me time,” she sleeps less than five hours per night. Her newborn son’s medical condition requires her to make regular trips to Doern­becher Children’s Hospital in Portland. She’s always tired, she said, but she has regained her self-respect.

Before MountainStar, Johnson said the only public services she knew of were those offered by the Crook County Department of Mental Health and Lutheran Community Services, where she completed mental health and substance abuse programs. She also attends community support groups several times a week. At MountainStar, Johnson continues to take one-on-one parenting classes and receives monthly home visits. She has an easy rapport with staffers and said she appreciates their lack of judgment. Asked where she’d like to see herself in two years, Johnson didn’t hesitate.

“I don’t want to be on public assistance,” she said, fighting back tears. “It makes me feel weak. And I’m not weak. I’m not someone who likes to ask for help — ever. The only thing that makes me do it is my children.”

Darnell empathized.

“I’ve heard so many stories and I’m always honored to be part of them when they become part of MountainStar,” she said.

After playing nearby with a toy vacuum cleaner, Irdesa rushed to her mother’s side.

“I’m back!” Irdesa said, her curly hair shining in the sun. “Yes, you are back,” her mother replied.

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com

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