Our dream is that all babies in the South will be born strong and well to parents who are ready to love and care for them and who live in communities that will support them and provide a safe and healthy environment in which the whole family can flourish,” says Dr. Sarah Verbiest, co-founder of Every Woman Southeast, a multi-state initiative to improve women’s and infants’ health in Southern communities.
Every Woman Southeast officially launched in March 2010, out of a collective desire to better address our southern legacy of health inequity and change our results by approaching our work differently. Bringing together leaders from health, community, advocacy and social service agencies across nine Southern states, the coalition shares knowledge, best practices and resources to advance a women’s health agenda. Within each state, coalition members test new approaches to promote women’s wellness and improve birth outcomes. Equity is a core value of the coalition, as well as giving voice to the ideas, needs and vision of women in the region.
In 2012, the coalition received a two-year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to support eight community-based projects designed to improve preconception health for women and men in communities with significant racial disparities.
“The greatest benefit of this funding was the opportunity it provided us to be bold and try something new,” explains Erin McClain, program manager at Every Woman Southeast. McClain provided oversight for the eight projects, which were implemented by coalition partners in different communities across the southern United States.
Each of the projects was grounded in the life course approach, which posits that there are critical periods during peoples’ lives – not just during gestation or infancy, but during childhood, adolescence and early adulthood – when they are more sensitive to physical and social factors that individually or collectively can influence their health and well-being later in life. Example projects are:
- In Jacksonville, Florida, the Duval County Health Department adopted a faith-based approach to preconception and reproductive health by training 28 peer health advocates from three churches. The Peer Education for the Soul project reached over 1,800 young adults through a range of church and community events. Each of these events focused on specific topics, such as contraception and sexually transmitted disease prevention; the challenges of growing up in certain neighborhoods; and sex, dating and healthy relationships.
- In Columbia, South Carolina, PASOs collaborated with local radio stations in two counties to broadcast reproductive health messages to Latina women. The promotores (community health workers) of the Choose Today a Healthy Tomorrow! project produced the “Paso a Paso” radio show, covering topics such as maternal stress and depression, healthy fathers, contraception and family planning. PASOs hosted over 60 radio shows, reaching more than 150,000 Latinas, encouraging them to take charge of their reproductive health as well as providing linkages to culturally competent care.
- In Marks, Mississippi, Delta Health Partners rolled out a reproductive-life-planning curriculum for providers who work with at-risk boys and young men, ages 10-25 years, in Quitman County, because men’s health affects birth outcomes, too. (Quitman County men have the lowest life expectancy in the United States.) The Reproductive Life Planning for At-Risk Young Men project partnered with the local Boys’ and Girls’ Club, sheriff’s office, Healthy Start Fatherhood Initiative, local churches and a local high school to educate more than 260 young men on issues such as healthy relationships, positive parenting, preventing sexually transmitted infections and preventing drug, alcohol, and tobacco use.
“Each of these projects used a unique approach to promote preconception and reproductive health, and there is a strong desire among other coalition members to replicate them, multiplying their reach and impact,” explains McClain, who is a strong proponent of educating both women and men to improve women’s health and birth outcomes in the South.
Verbiest, McClain and everyone involved with Every Woman Southeast are clear about their vision for improved women’s and infants’ health in the South and confident about the assets of their communities to make their dream a reality. For more information about the coalition, please visit EveryWomanSoutheast.org.