Every year, Black infants are more than twice as likely to die before their first birthday compared to White infants, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For nearly 30 years now, the folks at the Birthing Project USA have been fighting to close that gap. Their mission is to provide pregnant women, particularly Black women with the medical care and support needed to deliver a healthy baby.
As the only national African-American maternal and child health program in the country, the Birthing Project not only assists women during their pregnancy, they also provide education and emotional support for up to one year following the birth of their children.
“We like to call ourselves the Underground Railroad for New Life,” says Birthing Project Executive Director Joia Perry. “We want to ensure that the birth of every baby of color is witnessed and valued. [Our goal is to] decrease infant mortality in Black and brown babies by 50 percent within the next decade.”
And it looks as though they’re well on their way considering the fact that more than 10,000 healthy babies have already been born into Birthing Project communities. Additionally, the program has received local, national, and international recognition and is available in more than 90 communities in the U.S., Canada, Latin America, Cuba, and more recently, Africa.
To help spread awareness to expecting mothers and families, the Birthing Project hosts its annual MLK Day Coast To Coast Baby Shower. This year, the event took place on January 19 across 12 American cities, including New Orleans, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Detroit. Featuring local speakers, participants left armed with information on how to have a safe and healthy pregnancy, how to raise a healthy child, and how to maintain a healthy lifestyle and family.
“It was incredibly exciting to see the number of women, mothers, fathers, and families come out to help raise awareness about the importance about improving birth outcomes for women,” Perry says. “Our coast to coast baby shower educated moms-to-be on the resources that are available in their cities to prevent infant mortality and produce better birth outcomes.”
One of the Birthing Project’s core programs is the Sister-Friend Program, where dedicated volunteers are paired with expecting mothers to assist with reducing the risk of premature births, low birth weight, and infant mortality. The volunteers are referred to as “sister-friends” and the moms-to-be are referred to as “little sisters.” Each volunteer is asked to commit to at least eight hours per month for the first year of the baby’s life and receives ongoing training and support from the Birthing Project staff, in order to best assist her “little sister.” That means answering the phone at two o’clock in the morning or whenever your “little sister” needs support, attending breastfeeding classes with her, and helping her choose the right pediatrician, just to name a few.
“I loved being a ‘sister-friend’ to my ‘little sister,’” says Rhodesia Perine, a former “sister-friend” from New Orleans, Louisiana. “I thought I was going to be her mentor, but I learned more from her than I could’ve ever imagined. I was overjoyed to be a part of her life, and I would like to think our friendship made a healthy impact on her and her baby’s life.”
“My ‘sister friend’ is really more like a big sister who has had children and can help me so much more,” says Tamela Wheeler, a former “little sister” from Tupelo, Mississippi. “During my last birth when I had real labor pains, she was there to help ease those pains. I wish [she would’ve been there during my previous pregnancy] as well.”
Birthing Project’s other programs include the Saturday Morning Beauty Salon Program, which aims to reduce teen pregnancy through increasing young girls’ self-esteem and improving mother-daughter communication. Mothers and daughters attend a series of six classes before concluding with a graduation ceremony.
“A healthy pregnancy begins long before conception,” Perry says. “By working with our mothers and daughters during the impactful tween and teen years to ensure they have support and accurate health information, we help them make sound choices about their reproductive health and future.”
As an OB/GYN who’s been named as one of Planned Parenthood’s Top 99 Dream Keepers of 2015, Perry has been trying to open her own birthing center for the past 10 years and says that joining the Birthing Project is a dream come true.
“Seeing women work together and raise strong families by supporting each other is a wonderful thing. It’s a movement,” she says. “We’re working on making infant mortality a thing of the past. No medication can do it. No protocol in a hospital can do it, but by working together and supporting each other, we will do it.”
To donate, volunteer, start a Birthing Project in your community, or simply learn more about the program, visit www.birthingprojectusa.org.
Princess Gabbara is a 20-something Michigan-based journalist and freelance writer. As a graduate of Eastern Michigan University, she’s contributed to a host of publications, including Ebony.com, Essence.com, xoJane.com, ClutchMagOnline.com, ForHarriet.com, BlackDoctor.org, and Sesi Magazine. You can read more of her work on her blog. She also tweets @PrincessGabbara.