LAKELAND — Last year, Emma Gay, who is now 25, found herself alone, pregnant and depressed, but the Healthy Start program in Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties provided the help she needed.
“I didn’t expect to be a single mom. I was emotional, constantly crying,” Gay said Wednesday morning. “They helped me out with emotional support, including counseling and pre-natal appointments. I always had a support system — someone I could call and talk to.”
She was also anemic and her doctors made sure the baby, Bealyn Gay, was born a healthy weight in February.
Gay was part of the 30th anniversary celebration this week of Florida’s Healthy Start, a program founded to address the alarming rates of infant mortality and precariously low birth weights in Florida, and to remove systemic barriers to prenatal and early childhood health care. The 32 Healthy Start Coalitions around the state have implemented systems of prenatal care in every community, as well as provided services for postpartum women, young children up to the age of three, and their families.
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The Healthy Start program offers:
- Home Visiting – one-on-one in-home support from an advisor
- Prenatal Education and Support – explains changes to the body, and what to expect during labor and delivery
- Free Screening and Services – for common problems pregnant women and new families often experience, and receive services if needed
- Parenting Education and Support – get tips on taking care of babies and learn more about growth and development
- Care Coordination – find prenatal and pediatric care, access to support groups and classes.
- Health and Well-Being – plan for future pregnancies by learning all options, and connect to training, education, child care and other resources to help families succeed.
“There has been a 32% decrease in the infant mortality rate,” said Cathy Timuta, Chief Executive Officer of the Florida Association of Healthy Start Coalitions. “If the death rate today remained the same as it was in 1991, 638 more babies would have died last year” — the equivalent of 30 kindergarten classes or the population of entire elementary school.
The late Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles and his wife Rhea came up with the idea for Healthy Start after he served as chairman of the landmark National Commission to Prevent Infant Mortality, established by Congress to provide policy recommendations for reducing the United States’ high infant mortality rate. The Lakeland native and his wife wanted to make sure that mothers had the support they needed and babies would thrive with love, good nutrition and educational programs.
“You want to work much more at the front end in prevention and early intervention with children, and, until you do that, you’ll never really deal with the root problem,” Chiles said in a 1990 interview with The Ledger.
The Florida Legislature officially created the program in 1991.
The Healthy Start Coalition works to “launch a lifetime of health” through an integrated system of care, officials said in a press release. The process starts with a universal-risk screening, used throughout Florida to identify families in need at the earliest point possible – from the first prenatal appointment through the delivery of the baby.
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“Our services run the full range – from providing emotional support and wellness counseling to hands-on home visits and other types of direct care like our Beds 4 Babies program,” said Highlands/Hardee/Polk Healthy Start Executive Director Charlene Edwards. “We want to serve as a true safety net. And for our moms and babies who need it, we provide support and help for up to three full years.”
Beds 4 Babies focuses on creating safe sleep environments for babies – a critical factor in infant health. Since launching in 2006, the HHP Healthy Start Coalition has distributed nearly 6,000 portable cribs in the tri-county area.
State Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, is chairwoman of the Florida House Health and Human Services Committee. She and House Speaker Chris Sprowls helped usher in bi-partisan legislation this year that ensured post-partum care for mothers was extended from two months to a full year using Medicaid funding.
“It’s no secret that I am stanchly pro-life. We need to care about them when they’re born, too,” she said. “It seemed to me contradictory.”
Burton noted that she has three children and three grandchildren, including Tucker Burton, who was born in August.
“When their children sit next to a stack of books and read them, there are children in this state who don’t have that privilege,” Burton said. “We have to remember that there are so many across our state who don’t have that close support.”
Sallie Brisbane, HHP Healthy Start Board member, founder of The Well in downtown Lakeland, and Compass Smart Solutions educational consulting said she used some Healthy Start Services when her 21-year-old daughter was born two months premature, weighing just 2.7 pounds.
“I sought out information they had on breast feeding,” said Brisbane. Her daughter has since graduated from Harrison School for the Arts and is a junior at the University of South Florida, where is studying digital journalism.
“She is just a phenomenal young person navigating through life really well,” Brisbane said.
Ledger reporter Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7514. Follow her on Twitter at @KMooreTheLedger.
Healthy Start by the numbers:
- 136,778 pregnant women completed the universal risk screening, and 198,489 infants were screened out of 207,730 infants born.
- More than 129,000 pregnant women and 84,000 babies, and their families received a service from Healthy Start programs.
- Last year, the outcomes for pregnant women who received Healthy Start home visiting services per the model design include:
- 90% of babies were born full term (Florida average 89.4%)
- Infant mortality rate was 2.77 per 1,000 live births (Florida average 6)
- 100% were screened for depression
- 84% of mothers who smoked quit or reduced their use
- 87% kept their postpartum visit