For the past 25 years, the Indian River County Healthy Start Coalition has delivered invaluable education and support to new mothers in the belief that “Every mother. Every family. Every baby.” deserves a healthy start.
They have remained true to their mission to provide a local system of care that optimizes the health of all moms, babies and their families living in Indian River County. A broad spectrum of programs has been established to ensure that pregnant women and their babies receive necessary healthcare and support services from conception through the first few years of a child’s life.
Under the leadership of CEO Andrea Berry, who came on board in 2016, programs have been broadened to expand their scope of services and encompass a continuous Babies and Beyond curriculum.
“Our goal with Babies and Beyond is to touch every single mom in this county at least twice, because every mom can use a little help,” says Berry. “The science behind prenatal care, childbirth and childcare changes, so programs should be adapted to use best practices with the client’s needs in mind. Healthy Start services begin the moment the mother finds out she’s pregnant. Ninety-five percent of the pregnant mothers in the county are touched by us.”
The Babies and Beyond program engages and empowers new mothers through education during each step of their pregnancy. Moms receive counseling and can attend classes covering a wide range of topics, including prenatal nutrition, childbirth, coping with stress, baby-wearing, breastfeeding, infant care, brain development, milestones, infant CPR and postpartum self-care.
It was while making a home visit to check on a 15-year-old teen mother and her new baby that Berry discovered there was a need for doulas – trained women who provide non-medical physical, emotional and informational support before, during and after delivery. A grant from the John’s Island Community Service League provided the initial funding for the program to offer doula training.
“It’s about health literacy and showing mothers that if they have the strength to give birth, they can do anything,” says Berry. She notes that a doula offers the type of advice a woman might get from her mother; helping to develop a birth plan, giving massages, teaching delivery techniques and providing family intervention.
Then, as she took a tour with a Department of Health representative of several impoverished areas in the community, Berry became aware that having a safe sleeping space was a serious issue for newborns.
“Every year we have a few deaths related to strangulation or suffocation, but in many cases it’s not about co-sleeping, it’s about having a place period. There are homes in this county where there is nowhere to sleep,” she says.
To help remedy the situation, each baby born at Indian River Medical Center now receives a safe and snug Baby Box fitted with a mattress. It is filled with diapers, baby’s first reader and a cute onesie with “This Side Up” printed on the front; a reminder of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation to have babies sleep on their backs to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Before mothers leave the hospital, they can schedule a home visit with an RN through HSC’s Newborn Home Visit Nurse program, where nurses provide a well-check to mother and child and answer any questions she might have. Once mother and baby are settled in, Heathy Start’s play and peer group interactions help parents establish peer support while also learning developmentally appropriate techniques for raising healthy, happy babies.
Berry has written a proposal in hopes of being awarded a 2018 Impact 100 grant to fund obstetric services, mental health, playgroups and pediatric care at the Gifford Center for Women and Children. Of the 1,245 babies born in the county in 2016, more than half their mothers were enrolled in Medicaid services and were screened as high risk.
“The idea is to have a one-stop shop for mommies in one place,” she says. “Some of our lower income areas have higher rates of infant mortality and having access to services is part of the issue.”
Also in the works are plans to institute a Nurse Family Partnership program to address a number of issues, including the high incidence of teen pregnancy. There were 88 teen births in Indian River County last year; a rate higher than our neighboring counties, Miami-Dade County and the state average.
“Our community has a lack of health literacy. Part of our job is to identify what is going on in the community and make changes to suit current needs,” says Berry. She hopes to base it on a program used in Miami-Dade to reduce its teen pregnancy levels utilizing preconception family planning education and interconception health care, the period between pregnancies.
“We teach mommy to set life goals and talk about family planning,” says Berry. “It shouldn’t be shameful to ask for help. Women are giving birth to babies and they don’t know what’s going to happen during labor and delivery. Some people don’t have that mommy wisdom. We’ve lost generations of families that just aren’t together, aren’t communicative or just aren’t sure. On top of that, information changes so much that we’ve lost that base of mommy knowledge. We want to be that person they can rely on for evidence-based information.”
Healthy Start will host an open house and ribbon cutting from 4 to 6 p.m. Jan. 18 at its new Bridgewater Plaza location, 1555 Indian River Blvd. They recently purchased the second floor and sublet space to two other nonprofits, Treasure Coast Community Health and the Kindergarten Readiness Coalition.
Upcoming fundraisers include the ninth Annual Beachside Half Marathon at Riverside Park on Jan. 7; and the 10th annual Dancing With Vero Stars, May 12 at Riverside Theatre.
For more information, visit irchealthystartcoalition.org.