The good news: The overall infant mortality rate in California was 5.9 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1996, significantly below the target rate of seven deaths per 1,000 live births by the year 2000. The bad news: According to the State of California Department of Health Services, the infant mortality rate for African American babies is far from meeting that goal, with 14 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1996.
The numbers are simply too high to ignore. At least, that's what Kathryn Hall, a former public health administrator in Sacramento, believed when she founded Birthing Project USA almost 10 years ago, when the numbers were even higher.
Birthing Project USA started with the premise that "more black babies are likely to die or to be born unhealthy, simply because their mothers do not and cannot connect with the things necessary for survival," Hall said. "In this country the preventable death or disability of any child is unacceptable. We have a wealth of knowledge and resources. Oftentimes, the problem is solved by simply connecting the person who needs something with what is needed."
Birthing Project USA is now in more than 51 cities across the country, including Los Angeles and Pasadena. The community-based nonprofit organization pairs pregnant women, "Little Sisters," with volunteers called "Sister-Friends." The Sister-Friends become the Little Sisters' support system throughout their pregnancies and for one year following the birth of their babies. The Birthing Project's job is to give these babies a fighting chance by providing direction, emotional support and education to their mothers.
In 1996, Hall (executive director of Birthing Project USA) received the Essence magazine community service award. However, Birthing Project USA's funding--based on private contributions--was drastically reduced. It had run out of money for its national programs and local clinic in Sacramento. Brian K. Marks, president of African Pride Products, had been involved with community organizations. Believing in Kathryn Hall's cause, his company pledged financial backing of more than $100,000 as well as public relations support to create a higher awareness of the infant mortality problem.
The Little Sisters served by Birthing Project USA are 12 to 44. They may be single, married, employed or unemployed but without the benefit of health insurance. Some of the women are exposed to a number of risk factors like chronic diseases, substance abuse or a lack of basic resources, such as housing. And, though Birthing Project USA was created to service the African American community and continues to work heavily within that group, the pregnant women involved with the organization now vary in ethnicity, religion and socioeconomic backgrounds.
The relationships that form between the Sister-Friends and the pregnant Little Sisters are the key to the program's continued success. If mothers have trouble with housing, transportation or learning how to get and use prenatal care, they experience tremendous stress and put their babies at risk.
The Sister-Friends offer companionship and support. The Birthing Project volunteers encourage expectant mothers with whom they are paired to get appropriate prenatal care and parenting education. The Sister-Friends also provide encouragement in educational and career goals so their Little Sisters can secure plans for the future.
Each Little Sister receives individual case management, including the identification and coordination of services offered by agencies such as health departments, criminal justice systems, children's protective services and social services. Volunteer Sister-Friends attend birth preparation classes and act as a birth partner, if appropriate.
But to stay alive, Birthing Project USA needs volunteer Sister-Friends. To find out more about the organization, call (888) 657-9790.
Marilyn Vines is the national spokeswoman for Birthing Project USA and African Pride Products, the makers of hair- and skin-care products targeting the ethnic consumer. African Pride is the sole corporate sponsor of Birthing Project USA.