Program created to reduce infant deaths gives new moms a 'strong beginning' (Mlive)

By Meagan Beck

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – On a recent day, Delores Robinson's wake-up call came in the form of her youngest child, 9-month-old Lacey, whose eyes opened around 4 a.m.

After tending to the baby, Robinson couldn't get back to sleep. It would be a long day for the mother of three.

A few hours later, she started getting her oldest child, 4-year-old Brayden, ready for the day. While she helped Brayden with his shoes, Lacey playfully poked at 1-year-old Derek, who was sitting in the living room.

By 8:30 a.m., the 24-year-old mom scrambled to find her phone before leaving to drop her young trio at daycare, so she could get to work.

Her life seems hectic now, but Robinson said she's proud of the accomplishments she has made in her life since she's had her children. These include going back to high school, graduating, moving out of her mom's house and getting a job, to name a few.

Without the help of a program called Strong Beginnings, Robinson says she probably wouldn't be where she is now.

"It's important to me on a personal level because they have a lot of resources to help," Robinson said. "If it wasn't for them and the foundation set for me, I wouldn't be in the independent state I am now."

Strong Beginnings is a collaboration of eight community agencies under Spectrum Health, designed to help lower the infant mortality rate in Kent County.

For every 1,000 live births in Kent County in 2003, 23 African American children died before their first birthday, according to the Fetal-Infant Mortality Review for Michigan.

Dr. Kenneth Fawcett, vice president of Spectrum Health Healthier Communities, said Strong Beginnings staff can tell the program is working because that mortality number has now dropped to about 10 African American babies per 1,000 live births in Kent County. Comparatively, the mortality rates for white infants in Kent County is about six per 1,000 live births.

Strong Beginnings' success isn't going unnoticed. In July, the program received an American Hospital Association NOVA Award, which recognizes hospital-led collaborative efforts that work to improve a community's health.

The program is funded in part by a Health Resources and Services Administration grant and two Kellogg Foundation grants.

Additionally, Strong Beginnings recently was chosen to be a part of the Michigan Pay for Success pilot program, which is where the government partners with service providers and investors from the philanthropic and private communities to provide funds for new and preventative approaches to addressing community issues.

Christina Freese-Decker, president of Spectrum Health Hospital Group, said the NOVA award and pay for success support from the governor's office validate Strong Beginnings' effectiveness.

"We at Spectrum Health are pleased that the program's successes are being noticed, and hope they will be replicated in other places," Freese-Decker said.

The nearly 10-year-old program was started after health care workers realized certain factors - such as being born premature, or at a low birth weight - can increase the likelihood of a baby suffering a medical complication.

They also note other aspects, such as the parent's employment, housing, transportation and secure food sources, that can impact a person's health care.

Community health workers with the program are able to assist expecting or new mothers with things that impact their life or their new child's life.

"They are the unsung heroes," Fawcett said of these workers. "They live in and are really from the communities they serve. Often they have been the recipient of our programming and want to give back."

Based on the client's schedule, community health workers meet with mothers to talk about doctor's appointments, receive information on the benefits of breastfeeding and much more. There is also a fatherhood component to the program.

Robinson has been meeting with her newest community health worker, Acacia Beelen, once or twice a month. Beelen started off as a Strong Beginnings client herself and later was advised to apply for a job with the program.

As a single mom of an almost 7-year-old son, Beelen said she can relate to the clients on a personal level. While she might not understand everything they're going through, she enjoys being able to make a difference in the lives of new mothers.

"I love the program," Beelen said. "I love what we do because I feel like there's gaps in the community and Strong Beginnings stands in those gaps."

Strong Beginnings has reached a significant amount of people, and supporters believe it's helped reduce the rate of infant mortality by 50 percent in the last 10 years. But Fawcett said there is still work to be done.

But its success goes beyond mere numbers.

Her voice shaking as she tried to hide her tears from her children crawling around her on the living room floor, Robinson said she's had "dark thoughts" before. At times, a community health worker has been the right person to listen when she needed to vent, or share her concerns.

"It took that one person to say, 'We support you,'" Robinson said. "And that means a lot because when you don't feel that way, you get to having all types of crazy thoughts. It's important to hear that one person."