The Florin Creek Recreation Center was jampacked Saturday for the “Pride and Joy” baby shower for African American parents. The title, sprawled across posters and fliers for hundreds of attendees to see, incorporated two words that some black moms present said are too often absent during their pregnancies.
The half-day resource fair was intended as a one-stop shop for expecting moms and new parents needing to connect to wellness services and gather baby essentials. The First 5 Sacramento Commission, a child development project funded by Proposition 10, hosted the event through its Sac Healthy Baby campaign – a countywide effort to promote nutrition, education, safe sleep, prenatal care, car seat use and more among African American families.
The campaign itself grew out of a 2013 blue ribbon commission dedicated to reducing black infant mortality. Research from the county has consistently shown that black babies die at twice the rate of children of other races.
That’s due to a long list of causes, including malnutrition, child abuse, sudden infant death syndrome, and drug and alcohol use among mothers. About 70 percent of African American babies who die during their first year of life die from prematurity or low birth weight, according to event materials.
“We’re trying to turn the curve and fix that problem,” said Julie Gallelo, executive director of First 5 Sacramento. “One of the ways we wanted to do that was bringing women together to learn about all of the resources we have in the county .... to get them connected right now, today.”
Having a child is special, but we haven’t treated it that way.
Rolanda Wilkins, executive director of Earth Mama Healing, Inc.
Roughly two dozen pamphlet-covered tables were set up in the recreation center Saturday, many stocked with goodie bags of diapers, baby food and tiny socks. California Highway Patrol officers conducted car seat safety checks, while staff from the Women, Infants and Children program spoke to potential enrollees about nutrition and breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding is far less common among African American women than white women, despite black mothers being the most in need of its health benefits, said Jeannette Newman-Velez, breastfeeding coordinator with WIC’s community resource project. Compared with women of other races, black mothers have the lowest rate for use of prenatal care and the highest rate of gestational diabetes.
WellSpace Health, a community clinic, advertised its comprehensive prenatal care program and its home visitation offerings, as well as a 24-hour parent support line. The Sacramento Children’s Home’s crisis nursery program raised awareness about emergency child care for families struggling with illness, homelessness, domestic violence, drug or alcohol abuse or unemployment.
Pointing people in the right direction is a good start, but reducing the deaths will require a broader change in the way black women talk about pregnancy, said Rolanda Wilkins, executive director of local nonprofit Earth Mama Healing, Inc.
Wilkins has spent the last 30 years counseling black moms through healthy pregnancies, and she has seen how heavily environment influences outcomes, she said. Many young African American women are alone, stressed, poor or living in broken homes, she said. They don’t have the emotional support they need to protect themselves and their babies, she said, and they often lack the confidence to ask for help.
County reports show that 80 percent of all deaths of African American children occur in six Sacramento ZIP codes on the upper and lower edges of the city – neighborhoods with lower median incomes, higher unemployment rates and less access to healthy foods and clinical services.
County research has long shown that African American babies die at two times the rate of children of other races.
“When you’re having a baby it’s supposed to be a joyous time, a happy time,” Wilkins said. “You don’t necessarily feel good about yourself when you don’t have those things you’re supposed to have when you’re about to have a child. And we don’t really talk about that.”
Wilkins, now 44, lost her own child in 2009 during a pregnancy that was already high risk due to her age and her diabetes. Her daughter, Mae Ahavita Yetonda Yisrael, died in the womb at five months due to a prenatal condition that doctors blamed on stress.
She worked overtime through her entire pregnancy, something she said is common in African American communities either because mothers can’t afford to take time off or are worried about being seen as lazy.
“I worked with a lot of people who didn’t really care that I was pregnant,” she said. “Having a child is special, but we haven’t treated it that way.”
We’re trying to turn the curve and fix that problem (of black infant mortality).
Julie Gallelo, executive director of First 5 Sacramento, on black infant mortality
Alexxandria Paige, 24, is 23 weeks pregnant with a baby boy, but said with a shy smile that she had “no clue” about pregnancy. She attended the baby shower event to learn how to keep her child healthy starting in the womb, she said.
On Saturday, she shopped through a pile of free baby clothes and learned how to wear a baby-carrying wrap. She also signed up for a WIC service that provides her a counselor to make sure her nutritional needs, as well as her son’s, are met.
Paige, who lives alone in North Sacramento, said she’s going to change things going forward – including cutting back on hours at her five jobs. She’s also planning to drop fast food and drink a lot more water.
“I have to snap into mommy mode,” she said. “I’m concerned about so many things when it comes to the baby as far as health and nutrition and how to prepare ... Here, you get to connect and reach out to other moms. It’s important. You need to have people in your community who are going through the same things and have someone to talk to.”
This story was completed with support from the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California.
Resources for African American moms:
WellSpace Health 24-hour Parent Support Line
Black Mothers United
916-558-4812 ext. 217
WIC Breastfeeding Info