A Birthing Community

September 13, 2012

The news that she was pregnant with her second child was a surprise for Angela Hartford, and at least initially it wasn’t a welcome surprise. With a young son at home, she was managing her own cerebral palsy and, at the same time, was being treated for cancer. She felt overwhelmed, and she felt alone.

“I was raised in state care, so I didn’t have a mom, a sister or anyone I could go to,” she says. “And I just had to get help because I didn’t know which way to go. I was very, very scared.”

Soon, however, Angela found help, and a lot more, through the Birthing Project. The group is part of a national nonprofit that addresses the disturbingly high rate of infant mortality among women of color. African American babies, statistically, are more than twice as likely to die before their first birthdays as other infants in the United States, and the mother’s health and prenatal care are big factors behind that.

In response, the Birthing Project connects black women in need with support to have a healthy pregnancy, and make sure their newborns have every chance to thrive. An important way the Birthing Project does this is through Sister Friends, the group’s name for women who volunteer to guide and nurture expectant mothers, or, as they’re called in the program, Little Sisters. For Angela, that Sister Friend is Bridgechell Dawson.

“So all of my doctor’s appointments, she made sure I got there, my prenatal care, she showed me how to get insurance. She showed me how to eat healthy, fresh fruits instead of going to McDonald’s, how to cook a home-cooked meal,” Angela says. “Me and Bridgechell, we talk, we text, we Facebook. We have our arguments, like real sisters. We even delete each other on Facebook, but at the end of the day she’s my sister.”

D’Yuanna Allen-Robb, who runs the Birthing Project’s New Orleans chapter, says a Sister Friend is “someone they can talk to, someone who’ll love them like a sister would, or a friend who’s going to direct them toward services.”

“And you have some moms who are going to need a lot more help than that,” D’Yuanna continues, “who really do need someone who will connect them to resources like transportation, help make sure they’re going to their prenatal care appointments, help them to understand how important it is to get health care services, particularly in the first trimester of pregnancy and throughout the pregnancy.”

Expectant mothers might find the Birthing Project through referrals from health care providers or maybe even their friends, while the Birthing Project offers training for local women who want to become Sister Friends.

“Communities know how to take care of themselves when they are given the support and the resources to do so,” says D’Yuanna. “So what could be a radical idea of women actually taking care of women is actually a very natural idea.”

And the natural result of this caring relationship? Healthy newborns, like Angela’s daughter, now two years old.

“My baby came in seven pounds, 14 ounces, 19 inches long,” says Angela. “She was up against a lot. But she’s smart, she’s like her mama, she’s…she’s one of a kind.”

Written by Ian McNulty for the Community IMPACT Series and produced by WWNO in partnership with the Greater New Orleans Foundation. To learn more about the Birthing Project, click here. Find the  New Orleans chapter at 4205 Canal St., or call them at 504-482-6388.

Photo by Jackson Hill. Pictured: Jaquisha and her son, Joziah at the Birthing Project.