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OKC volunteers, clinics support moms to save babies

Daily Oklahoman - 6/13/2018

June 13--Oklahoma City -- Homaletta McKnight knows the pain of going to funeral for someone who lived less than a year, and it's something she'd like to spare as many people from as possible.

McKnight, said her nephew died in his sleep as an infant, because his parents didn't know that placing him in an adult bed for the night could be dangerous. So when a group of women from Oklahoma City churches asked her to help educate families about infant mortality, she was eager to share that information with the congregation at The Church of the Living God Pillar and Ground of Truth, where her husband is a pastor.

She currently mentors one woman who is expecting, but McKnight said she tries to talk about infant safety to grandparents, fathers and anyone else who might care for a baby. She even plans to enlist people who don't spend time with babies to provide safe-sleep pamphlets to their friends who are parents.

"That's all I'm asking you to do. Save a life," she said.

The group McKnight joined, Leading Ladies, is just one effort to connect new moms with a community that supports them and can help them to meet their babies' needs. It pairs pregnant women with mentors who offer support and help them find resources during their pregnancies and their babies' early years.

It has focused particularly on black women, because black babies in Oklahoma are nearly twice as likely to die in their first year of life as white babies.

The group launched a year ago with after two "first ladies," the wives of pastors in predominantly black Oklahoma City churches, began gathering women in their congregations who wanted to help mothers and babies. It now includes women working in medicine, mental health, social services and law, said Karen Jacobs, who volunteers with the group and works as administrator of the Department of Human Services' Office of Community and Faith Engagement.

While a mom may have one mentor, that mentor can call on others if she isn't sure how to help with an issue, Jacobs said.

"Things may happen that I don't have a clue, but I can call Dr. Rebecca" Faulkner, a family medicine doctor and fellow volunteer, she said.

Many women in the participating churches already had the skills and desire to help, but didn't want to "butt in," said Stacy Dykstra, a volunteer who works at Smart Start Central Oklahoma. The group made it easier for those who needed help to connect with those who wanted to give it, she said.

"It opened doors for people to say yes and ask," she said.

The women who have participated so far found the group through their churches, but the Leading Ladies are reaching out to pregnancy centers in the hope that they'll connect with women earlier in the prenatal period, said Carla McCarrell-Williams, a member of St. Mary's Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.

So far, 10 women have been matched with mentors, said Barbara Colbert, a volunteer and an outreach specialist at the Oklahoma City-County Health Department. Six babies have been born healthy so far, and four are due later this year, she said.

The group is trying to find as many resources as possible to meet needs like nutritious food, transportation to medical appointments and supplies for the babies, Jacobs said. They offered the mothers Thanksgiving food baskets last year, Mother's Day care packages and a baby basket with supplies like diapers, wipes and basic baby clothes.

"Many of these ladies have complex issues that they're dealing with," she said.

The group could use more donations, particularly of larger items like Pack N Play portable cribs, said Faulkner, the doctor who volunteers with Leading Ladies. The safest way to put a baby to sleep is on his back in a separate crib with a firm mattress and no loose items that could pose suffocation hazards, but not everyone can afford baby furniture.

"A lot of our young women just don't have a safe place to lay the baby down to sleep," she said.

The mentors and the other moms participating also form a community of people to call for help, or just someone to listen to their concerns, Jacobs said.

"We've seen that reduce the stress during the pregnancy by having someone confidential to talk to," Jacobs said. "I think it's created a ladies' bond that wasn't there."

Moms learn together

At Variety Care's location on NW 10, another relatively new program is betting on the power of bringing moms together.

Mothers can join the Healthy Expectations program during the 18th to 20th weeks of pregnancy and continue meeting until their children turn 5. Once a month, they have a short lesson and discussion about a topic related to pregnancy or infant safety, then meet with their primary care provider. Behavioral health care and nutrition advice also is available, if needed.

Most of the participants are low-income women who speak Spanish as their first language. While Hispanic babies have a similar risk of dying as white babies in Oklahoma, language barriers could prevent mothers from getting services and support they need.

Sally Kerr, director of behavioral health at Variety Care, said the program is in its pilot phase, with just one medical provider, though it eventually will expand to other locations.

Lou Carmichael, CEO of Variety Care, said their clinics also have tried to engage women in care as quickly as possible. They offer pregnancy tests without an appointment, and an almost immediate first visit for women who test positive. Some women have trouble getting to appointments, she said, so it's important to assess their health risks and sign up those who qualify for Medicaid as soon as possible.

"We're saying, 'You're here now, let's get you started on vitamins,'" she said.

Variety Care has started offering more slots for the newborn visits, because not every mom can find a pediatrician with an opening in the first week after leaving the hospital, Carmichael said. The visit offers a chance not only to find out if the baby is having health problems, but also to screen the mother for mental health problems.

Women in Oklahoma are at a higher-than-average risk of postpartum depression. Many women feel tired or worried as they cope with the demands of caring for an infant, but a woman with postpartum depression is overwhelmed by feelings of sadness or anxiety, and may have trouble caring for herself or her baby.

In the short run, the goal is to reduce the number of low-birthweight babies and mothers with untreated depression, Kerr said. Over the next five years, they hope to improve bonding between parents and babies, which decreases the odds children will have behavioral problems that interfere with their schooling, she said.

"The idea was to wrap all of these services around our families," she said. "We hope that they bond and get to know each other, and they have that peer support."


To volunteer with Leading Ladies or to make a donation, email, or call 405-425-4427.


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