By Mylika Scatliffe
Special to the AFRO
The Healthy Start Initiative is a federally funded program in over 100 communities throughout the United States. Its purpose is to reduce infant and maternal mortality and recognizes the importance of fathers in healthy birth outcomes. Baltimore Healthy Start (BHS) was established in 1991 as a 501©3 nonprofit corporation and one of the 15 original cities for the Federal Healthy Start initiative. Healthy Start supports women before, during, and after pregnancy; this is accomplished by partnering with community resources to strengthen the family structure.
Baltimore Healthy Start (BHS) works in communities with infant mortality rates at least 1.5 times the national average, high rates of low birth weight, premature birth, and maternal mortality. According to the website, more than 33% of the predominantly Black and Hispanic residents in the program’s targeted communities live in poverty, and more than half didn’t graduate high school.
“One of our main goals is to reduce infant mortality and improve maternal morbidity rates in our catchment areas (targeted communities),” said Teneele Bailey, BHS’ maternal health coordinator. “Our focus is care for the women. children and families in our city. Baltimore is a wonderful city, and we want to avail families of our program, resources and opportunities with our community partners.”
Client referrals are made by Health Care Access Maryland (HCAM – a nonprofit agency that strengthens Maryland’s health care delivery system), neighborhood recruitment, and word of mouth. BHS recruits pregnant and postpartum women with babies less than six months old or partners of eligible women in one of the targeted communities. New clients are assigned a Neighborhood Health Advocate, a staff member who performs home visits and provides support tailored to the needs of the family until the newborn reaches 18 months.
Most of the BHS recruiters live in the communities they serve. They recruit at local clinics, neighborhood events, through old fashioned neighborhood canvassing, and word of mouth. It’s often as simple as approaching a pregnant woman, or a woman with a baby that is the appropriate age and introducing and enrolling them in the program. The recruiters are well known in the neighborhoods they serve. If a young woman becomes pregnant, her friends and neighbors may just send her to the recruiter to explore resources available to her.
The services and resources include regular home visits (virtual and on an emergency basis since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic), GED classes, BHS Store, Breastfeeding Education, Fatherhood Engagement Services, Belly Buddies, and more. Wellness services are also offered including family planning, preventive screenings to identify early pregnancy complications (gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia etc.), mental health screenings and more. Baby care and safety items, such as Pack and Plays, are made available for babies to have safe sleep spaces. The ability of a baby to sleep alone greatly reduces the chance of infant death in the first year of life.
One of the most important services offered is Family Planning. Clinical services are provided that may fill a gap in prenatal care while women are waiting for a medical appointment or for medical insurance eligibility. Services include physical exams, pregnancy tests, testing and treatment for gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, bacterial vaginosis, and HIV. Women receive follow up treatment that is center-based or in accordance with their primary care practitioner.
Belly Buddies is another of their services. According to the program description on the BHS website, “Belly Buddies offers a unique approach to maternity care. Pregnant women, with similar delivery dates meet for 10 weeks to reduce stress, receive prenatal care information, and share experiences. The group creates an environment of trust and sisterhood, as the women discuss valuable information about pregnancy, risk factors, parenting and concerns.” They can participate in activities such as yoga, massage therapy and parenting, nutrition, and childbirth classes. Participants in Belly Buddies are also offered the opportunity to be matched with a doula. Keyawna Scruggs is a neighborhood health advocate and a doula. “A doula can offer support and help a woman have the birthing experience she wants to have rather than what the hospital or anyone else thinks she should have,” said Scruggs.
BHS also has a Fatherhood Engagement program. The partners of women involved in the program are offered education and support, tailored to their individual needs to enhance, and strengthen their family structure and connection to their children.
The BHS Store provides a way for enrolled families to purchase needed items including diapers, toiletries, personal care items, and household necessities such as laundry detergent. Clients earn “bucks” by keeping up with home visits, orientation, and appointments with Neighborhood Advocates, attending center-based events, keeping routine doctor and well child appointments among other things. Scruggs states, “I encourage my clients to save up their bucks and shop at the BHS store rather than a store like Walmart. The money they save could go towards a bill or other household expenses.”
Baltimore Healthy Start has been servicing the local community for three decades. There has always been a need but resources like BHS are especially crucial during a global pandemic. BBHS has also sponsored Covid-19 Clinics which are especially important for pregnant women. Even with its longevity in the community, families in need may not be aware of resources like BHS that are right in their backyard. If you could benefit from the services provided by Baltimore Healthy Start, or know someone who can, go to baltimorehealthystart.org. They can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Baltimore Healthy Start is located at 610 N. Chester St., Baltimore, MD 21205. The phone number is (410) 675-2125.
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