As first-time mom-to-be Ashley Crawford made her way into a pregnancy support group meeting in Fort Wayne, Indiana, several months ago, social worker Jackie Martinez recalls being surprised by the 32-ounce cup of sweetened iced tea the 30-year-old held in her hand.
“She had this great energy and was really excited to become a mom, but there was a lot she needed to learn about prenatal care and how to have a healthy pregnancy,” Martinez told HuffPost. “She had every risk factor I could probably check ― she was obese, she was a smoker and she was also carrying twins.”
During a group discussion, the social worker talked to Crawford about nutrition and how it can affect a pregnancy outcome. The lecture had an immediate effect ― on her way out, Crawford didn’t hesitate to throw the full drink in the trash can, as Martinez would proudly find later.
Educating pregnant women is a huge part of what Martinez does for Healthier Moms and Babies, a non-profit that started in Allen County, which includes Fort Wayne, in the mid-1990s. The group works with low-income women who are Medicaid recipients “throughout their pregnancies to provide prenatal care ... education on the development of their babies, knowledge of their bodies and help recognizing the signs of preterm labor,” said Paige Wilkins, the group’s director.
Its services include home visitations, as well as the support group sessions that Crawford attended.
Crawford, who lives in government-funded housing, had a difficult pregnancy. She had to stop working due to high pelvic pressure caused by the weight that she was carrying. Still, she was able to give birth without any major health issues.
“We worked with Ashley and her blood pressure remained good and she never became gestational diabetic at all,” Martinez said. “She now has two healthy boys that she is raising really well.”
One of the biggest problems Healthier Moms confronts is that some women don’t recognize the signs of preterm labor and by the time they reach the hospital, it’s often too late to save the baby, Wilkins said.
On its website, the group notes that “the earlier the baby is born, the more problems the baby could have with a greater probability those problems could persist throughout his/her life. In many cases, if the mother recognized her signs of preterm labor and sought medical assistance early enough, the greater the chance that the delivery could be forestalled for days, weeks and sometimes a month or two.”
Combating infant mortality is one of the group’s major goals.
As of 2015, Indiana had an infant mortality rate ― death within the first year of life ― of 7.3 per 1,000 live births. That was higher than the overall U.S. rate of 5.9 deaths per 1,000 live births.
The problem is especially acute in some of Indiana’s black communities. “If you look at rates [for] African-American babies ... they are two times more likely to die than white babies in Indiana,” Wilkins said.
With a background in social services and home visitation programs, Wilkins has been working to to expand her organization’s outreach and reduce the number of bad pregnancy outcomes.
She works directly with nurses and social workers like Martinez to teach mothers-to-be how to track fetal development by doing kick counts, for example. Lessons are also provided on when to call a doctor and how to provide a safe environment for their babies. This includes cautioning women about unsafe sleep environments, “such as babies sleeping in adult beds with adults, on sofas or in their own beds with crib bumpers, blankets, pillows and toys,” according to the group’s website.
The organization, with a budget of about $300,000 last year, has a staff of five, including Wilkins. They take turns visiting homes to make sure the women they’re working with have a safe place to live, are not experiencing any form of domestic abuse, are paying their bills on time and getting access to enough resources, from clean water to mental health care.
Wilkins said that in addition to a lack of needed information, other factors complicate birth outcomes, such as obesity.
Women who are Medicaid recipients “tend to be obese, and if you are obese you’re 20% more likely to have a preterm baby ― and that number goes up to 33% if you’re morbidly obese,” she said.
Smoking is another big factor ― and among the state’s Medicaid population, a study found that 30% of pregnant women were smokers.
In the past year, Healthier Moms provided services to 235 women and welcomed the births of 109 babies under its program. Only 8% of the newborns had to be admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit.
The group also deals with tragedy ― and providing support for women who lost babies during pregnancy is a priority for it.
“Last year we had a mom who lost a baby at about 26 weeks,” Wilkins said. “It was all very hard on her and we continued to work with her to make sure that she had the support she needed to help her cope with that loss, not only emotionally but financially as well.”
Wilkins hopes to expand the group’s reach by adding programs to educate the partners of the women its serving and to amplify its mental health assistance.
The nonprofit recently received funding from the Indiana Department of Health to start a Nurse Family Partnership in Allen County. With the new money, eligible mothers will be able to stay in the program until their child’s second birthday instead of only three months after birth, which is the organization’s current limit.
“I think collaboration is key to solve” the lack of support for many low-income pregnant women, Wilkins said. “We need to work together.”
Martinez couldn’t agree more: “It’s amazing what you can accomplish just by being there and offering a little bit of support.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.