Cleveland has the highest prematurity rate in the country.
The problem is especially bad for black women, who are 49 percent more likely to deliver their babies pre-term than white women. But there is an organization right here in Cleveland working to change that, and they are seeing results.
“In 2010, I lost my son, Elijah, to premature birth,” said Kisha Foster, who knows the pain of losing a child firsthand. “We were five months pregnant and he came early and I just didn't really have a lot of support.”
When she found out she was pregnant again, Kisha joined a group called Birthing Beautiful Communities.
“They're making sure our babies get here,” she said. “They're getting us educated. There's so much stuff I learned coming to BBC that I just would not have known, had I not came here.”
“We provide holistic services to that mother, meaning we look at pre-conception, pregancy, post-partum, housing, maternal mental health, education, workforce,” said Christin Farmer.
Farmer created BBC in 2014, in response to the area's high infant mortality and pre-term birth rate. In doing so, she had to factor in what she says is one of the main reasons why it is such a problem in the first place: racial inequalities dating back to policies in place more than half a century ago, that led to segregation in Cleveland.
“There's a lot of toxic stress that comes along with that, with the economy or lack thereof or economic opportunities and workforce development opportunities that comes from not having the investments within certain neighborhoods and communities,” Farmer noted. “And that trickles down to how well women are able to carry their babies to full-term.”
Dr. Angela Neal-Barnett is a professor of psychological sciences at Kent State University, and directs the program for research on anxiety disorders among African Americans at Kent State.
“When you look at black women who are pregnant who are middle income vs. who are low income vs. who are upper middle income, there is no difference in terms of prematurity of babies,” she explained.
Dr. Neal-Barnett joined the BBC team a year-and-a-half ago and says having a program by black women, for black women makes all the difference.
“They know what these women are facing. They know what it's like to be pregnant in Hough, what it's like to be pregnant in Central, what it’s like to be pregnant in Midtown,” she said.
The program offers more than just support and education. It goes full-circle.
“We recruit, train, hire, women from the communities that have the highest infant mortality rates and employ them to provide services to women within their own communities,” explained Farmer.
The women who go through the program can become employed doulas through BBC and, in turn, pay it forward by helping women just like them through pregnancy and delivery. It is a model that works.
“Our preliminary data has shown us that 96% of our moms are full-term moms,” Farmer said.
And women like Kisha Foster are living proof.
Five months ago, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Love.
“It's just a beautiful feeling, considering the whole journey of losing and healing and recovering and then getting pregnant again and just kind of not trying to worry about whether I'm going to lose her or not and then she comes here successfully,” remarked Foster.
“You have gained, from being with Birthing Beautiful Communities from the beginning to the end, tools to help you provide the life you want for your child,” added Dr. Neal-Barnett. “Because everybody wants better for their children.”
“We want to see our communities thrive and that's why we're called Birthing Beautiful Communities,” said Farmer. “It's figuratively and literally. We're here because we hope to birth beautiful communities and babies.”
According to Farmer, 163 women are going through the Birthing Beautiful Communities program right now, and they have more than 200 applicants for doula training.
The group began as a volunteer organization. Now, thanks to funding, BBC has been able to expand. It works with several partners in the community, including The Cleveland Foundation, Neighborhood Connections, Greater University Circle Community Health Initiative, University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, University Circle Inc., Ohio Department of Medicaid and Environmental Health Watch.