WASHINGTON – Natasha Smith is exactly the kind of woman the District of Columbia Department of Health’s Healthy Start Program was designed for when it was established 20 years ago. Smith is 19, single, living with her grandmother in the Trinidad neighborhood of Washington and six months pregnant with her first child.

Her initial reaction to her pregnancy was typical for an unwed teen. “I was scared and nervous,” said Smith, who lost her mother to breast cancer in April. “I didn’t know what to do. I haven’t even finished high school.”

To help her deliver a healthy baby, the program, established when the city’s infant mortality rate was a national embarrassment, began providing counseling and medical help.

“I’ve learned a lot, especially about second-hand smoke,” said Smith, who turns 20 May 12. “I am taking my vitamins. I got into WIC (Women, Infants and Children).

“A nurse comes to the house every month to check the baby’s heartbeat. And I’m keeping a pregnancy journal about how I feel. I’m trying to have a healthy baby.”

As part of that process, Smith’s grandmother has agreed to no longer smoke in the house.

Because of its work with women like Smith, the Healthy Start Program has seen a more than 50 percent drop in the city’s infant mortality rate since its inception. When it began in 1991, the rate stood at 22 deaths per every 1,000 children. That figure is less than 11 now.

“It’s success stories like Natasha’s that reminds me of just how important the work we do for young mother’s in the District is,” said DOH Senior Deputy Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt.

“Although we have assisted many District women with our annual baby shower event, and have made strong strides towards reducing our city’s infant mortality rate, there is still much more work that needs to be done to ensure that every District mother is afforded the tools and opportunity to give birth to a baby who is safe and healthy.”

DOH officials and more than 200 women celebrated the program and its success during the eight annual baby shower for at-risk expectant mothers at Howard University Hospital last week with information sessions and lunch.

The participants heard from April Tucker, mother of Grammy-nominated R&B artist Trey Songz, on how she raised him as an unwed teen. Also among the speakers were Dr. Kerry Lewis, chair of the Howard University Hospital Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Sheila Stewart of Radio One, who emceed.