Finding connections, resources and support as a pregnant woman in Detroit is not always easy. Yet with 13 percent of babies dying in Detroit before their first birthday, according to Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, director and health officer for the Detroit Health Department, the need is dire. And while there are plenty of programs in the region focusing on infant mortality, Khaldun says, that isn’t enough to prevent these grim statistics. How do you actually connect this with the community – and get women the support they need? SisterFriends Detroit has become the answer.
Launched in August 2017, this grassroots Detroit Health Department-helmed program seeks to “connect pregnant moms and families to existing programs and resources – and to each other,” as its website explains. It establishes “Little Sister” relationships between a mentor and mentee during the course of an expecting mom’s pregnancy through her baby’s first birthday. The program is modeled after the Birthing Project USA framework, a national nonprofit that pioneered “SisterFriending” three decades ago.
To date, SisterFriends Detroit has seen over 220 volunteer mentors answer the call. These women have helped their Little Sisters in a variety of ways, from driving them to prenatal care appointments to being on-call during the birth experience. Mentees also have access to trainings, parenting classes and Sister Circles, which focus on building important skills. “Over 70 mothers have delivered in the program,” Khaldun says, “and almost 90 percent of them delivered a full-term baby – and (we’ve seen) similar numbers, as far as those that delivered a baby at healthy weight.”
Khaldun, a practicing ER doctor at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital, says that many other cultures around the world use similar approaches, where a community embraces and supports women successfully through pregnancy. “When you connect the community and bring those resources to families, to mothers, you can be successful,” Khaldun says. “The way our program works, we also have an incredibly passionate, committed, capable set of community health workers that we employ at the Detroit Health Department to really make sure that the moms are connecting to these resources.”
Connecting mentors to expectant mothers starts online and is similar to social connection websites, says Detroiter Stephanie Young, who has been involved since the program’s inception. Young is a politically engaged Michigan State University graduate who currently serves as an appointee to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. It’s this community work that bonds Young and her Little Sister. “It’s almost like a Match.com,” Young says, referring to the popular dating website. “They put together this algorithm based on one another’s interest – they even look at where you’re located and different things like that. My Little Sister, she likes community work – she worked for Habitat for Humanity,” and was connected to “somebody whose whole life is dedicated to community work and service.” (That would be Young.)
Young, whose first job out of college was at the state Capitol, didn’t foresee herself as a mentor, but now, she wouldn’t change the experience. For those interested, she says, you don’t have to have any particular background in medical, clinical training. “It’s about people being themselves,” Young says, “and bringing who you are into developing a new relationship with someone.” Native Detroiter Cynthia Williams, another SisterFriends Detroit mentor who works with the nonprofit Black Family Development, Inc. of Detroit, says that SisterFriends Detroit aligns with who she is as a person. “The reduction of infant mortality is very key and very important,” Williams says. “A lot of our young mothers – and older mothers – have limited access to community resources.”
That’s why, as part of SisterFriends’ mission, it offers monthly workshops and orientations designed to educate both mentors and Little Sisters on many key topics, all focused on a healthy pregnancy and first year of baby’s life. Beyond that, there’s “the networking with their own peers,” Williams adds, “to have a conversation with someone who’s going through the same thing you’re going through.” Williams’ Little Sister is in her 30s, but she has seen mothers as young as 15 – and some in their 50s. “I think it will be a lifelong experience,” Williams says. “It’s a lifelong journey that I will embrace and continue to participate in.”
It’s deeply personal for Khaldun, as well. In her late 20s, she almost died after giving birth to a son. “An African-American woman (dies) at a rate three-to-four-times higher than a Caucasian woman in this country, and that’s regardless of socioeconomic status,” Khaldun says. “Community support can change that. It doesn’t take a lot of time. It doesn’t take a lot of effort. All you have to do is show up and care – and you can really make a significant difference in a mom’s, in an infant’s, life.”
For more information about this Detroit Heath Department initiative or to sign up as a mentor, call 313-961-BABY or visit sisterfriendsdetroit.com.
Originally published in BLAC Detroit Magazine