Berkeley Program Focuses on Black Infant Health By MATTHEW ARTZ

Friday May 06, 2005

Back in February, Ashawn Walker was smoking cigarettes, guzzling down soda, eating junk food and unbeknownst to her, two months pregnant. Now, with the help of a Berkeley program for African American moms-to-be, she’s drinking water, eating fruit, and keeping her distance from nicotine. 

“At first I wasn’t prepared to be a mom,” Walker said Wednesday at the office of Berkeley’s Black Mother Infant Health Program. “Now I want to make sure my baby is healthy.” 

When it comes to black infant health, Berkeley had a bad reputation. A city health disparity report released in 1999 found that 16 percent of children born to African American women suffered from low birth weight, compared to 4 percent for white women. The four-to-one ratio was the worst of 165 cities studied throughout the country, according to statistics from the National Center for Health Statistics. Washington, D.C. finished second worst with a ratio of 3.16. 

“It was a real eye opener,” said Vicki Alexander, director of Berkeley’s Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health Program. She said that low birth weight correlates both to greater frequency of infant death, and to poor educational performance and school delinquency. 

In response to the grim statistics, the state in 2001 gave the city a $100,000 a year grant to start the Black Infant Health Program. Operated by two full-time staff members, the program provides social support for pregnant African American women over the age of 18. A separate city program focuses on younger women. 

“My experience over the years is that women will seek medical attention, but many do not have the family or social support,” said Program Coordinator Yvonne Lacey. “If we can fill that void, it can hopefully give them the self esteem to eat better and have a healthy, happy pregnancy.” Most of the participants are referred by other city-funded health agencies, she said, and many are unmarried and homeless. 

The backbone of the program is a weekly discussion group for pregnant mothers giving them instruction on how to deliver a healthy baby and care for their infant. For new moms, the program hosts monthly discussion groups. 

Outside the program’s South Berkeley office, program workers make home visits to ensure the women are doing well, drive them to doctor’s appointments, connect them with nurses, help them find jobs and housing if necessary, and sometimes out of their own pocket supply them with supermarket vouchers for food and diapers. 

“They don’t just talk about the pregnancy,” said Walker, who is due to give birth to a boy in September. “They talk to you about how to better yourself as well.” 

She said that program workers had helped her get into Alameda Beauty College and are trying to help her boyfriend find a job. 

Solvena Sampson, 29, the mother of a 2-year-old, said the program helped her get through an emotionally wrenching pregnancy. “My child’s father wasn’t there for me and they helped me get my anger out,” she said. “They don’t criticize you, they don’t judge you.” 

Under the terms of the grant, the program—one of 17 in the state—is only open to African Americans. While they do make referrals for women of other backgrounds, Romona Benson, a community health specialist, said part of the success of the group is its connection to the people it serves. 

“We’re just plain folks from the community,” she said. “We can knock down barriers for public health nurses to get in and give clients the service they need.” 

So far the program appears to be making a difference. The latest birth rate statistics, compiled in 2002, one year after the program began, showed that instances of low birth rates among African Americans in Berkeley had dropped to about 13 percent, according to Alexander. She added that city data showed that women who attended were less likely to deliver low birth weight babies.  

“To me this program is a gem,” she said. “It’s really proven its worth in terms of the low birth weight births it has prevented.” 

The key to preventing low birth weight babies, Benson said, is educating the women about how their habits can affect their baby’s health. “They haven’t been given the information before,” she said. “Their friend might have said, ‘girl, you shouldn’t drink,’ but they haven’t learned what alcohol actually does to their baby.” 

With an annual budget of $120,000, from the state grant and a city contribution, Lacy is hoping to get community members involved to boost the program’s offerings. A local resident has offered to form an exercise group, and Lacy wants to start a yoga class as well. 

As for Walker, she can’t wait to become a mom. “It’s going to be the most beautiful thing ever,” she said. “I’m so juiced.”