Helping young mothers one door at a time

Oct 25, 2018

Community Health Workers with the Buffalo Prenatal-Perinatal Network head out into Buffalo's East Side neighborhoods looking for women in need of their services.
Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News

How do you help mothers and babies in need? One door at a time. Here’s how a local agency does it.


It’s mid-afternoon in the office of the Buffalo Prenatal-Perinatal Network – a more-than 30-year-old not-for-profit focused on improving outcomes for babies and mothers. There are a number of ways they do it, but one of the most effective is with good old-fashioned footwork.

“So we’re going door-to-door looking for the clients that haven’t accessed care yet for whatever reason – if there’s stigma, they just don’t know where to go, they’re worried about going. We try to find those cases that are scared, or need shelter or whatever, that aren’t in the system yet,” said Sherrell McLean, care coordinator for a team of about a dozen Community Health Workers – CHWs for short.

Nearly every week, the CHWs hit the streets of Buffalo, visiting sites picked by CHW Program Manager Marixsa Sanchez.

Some parts of the neighborhoods visited by Buffalo Prenatal-Perinatal Network's Community Health Workers are rougher than others.
Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News

“So tell me about this neighborhood today. 14215, right?,” asked WBFO’s Avery Schneider.

“We have a lot of teenagers. It’s the lowest literacy rate in Buffalo. And it has high infant mortality and high low birthweights,” explained Sanchez. “So this is a great neighborhood to seek out a lot of individuals.”

As recent as 2016, the rate of infant mortality in this East Side neighborhood was more than 13 deaths for every thousand babies born, and low birthweight was a staggering 13 percent. It’s among the city’s worst outcomes, nearly double the county average, and a long way away from nationally-set goals for 2020 of 5.9 per 1000 for infant mortality, and a reduction of low birthweight to 7.8 percent.

UBMD Epidemiologist Jim Shelton analyzes this data for all of Western New York. He said what drives 14215’s long-standing statistics are the social determinants of health, “which takes in place housing conditions, economic conditions, living conditions, education conditions.”

“And that’s just one of the poorer sections of town,” said Shelton.

Sanchez said statistics tell her one in every six girls in 14215 will get pregnant. Most of the clients her team finds are black or Hispanic, ages 18 to 23.

With their grey and maroon t-shirts and aprons, the CHWs fan out across both sides of every street they canvass.
Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News

Sporting grey and maroon t-shirts and aprons, the CHWs are a visible presence in the neighborhood. They walk briskly from door-to-door, in and out of shops, even stopping people on the sidewalk for their key question.

“Do you know anybody who might be pregnant or parenting with a small child?” her team asks a woman coming out of a corner store.

“I do. I do,” she tells them emphatically. “And their baby…well she’s only about a few months.”

But not all interactions are like this. Finding someone who knows a pregnant woman or a new mother is somewhat common, but finding the woman herself can be rare.

On this particular day, the team gets lucky when a resident points them towards Aarona Wardlaw. She had given birth only 15 days before to a baby girl named Journi, and it’s her second child.

“They’re coming out here offering free services to people in the community. What does that mean to you?” Schneider asked.

“It’s appreciated. Because some people don’t do it. So it’s nice,” said Wardlaw.

“What kind of services do you look for now that you have a new baby?” asked Schneider.

Marixsa Sanchez (left) and her team coordinate their movements through Buffalo's East Side neighborhoods, especially when they find a potential client or someone who needs an on-the-spot assessment.
Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News

“Whatever I can get,” said Wardlaw.

“What’s most important to you?” Schneider asked.

“My kids,” said Wardlaw.

After an initial interaction, one of the CHWs circled back for a mini-needs assessment to find out what items Wardlaw might need as soon as the next day.

“So this is what we’re looking for,” said Sanchez. “Her being homeless, she says she doesn’t have food, and she needs other services.”

Within the week, another CHW would be back to find Wardlaw for a full assessment and bring her on board as a client of the Buffalo Prenatal-Perinatal Network. They’ll make sure she gets insurance, a doctor for her and her baby, and even take them to their visits to help advocate.

And that’s just the beginning. Mothers can stay in the program until their child turns two. By that time, CHWs will help make sure they’re in better housing, working or going back to school, and – in general – living a better life.

“That’s what we do this for – to find that person, that individual,” said Sanchez. “So, I’m happy right now. This effort, even if we have one person, it’s great that we did that.”

It’s hard work helping change a community one door and one person at a time. But after 23 years in charge of this outreach program, Sanchez and her team are not giving up.


SPECIAL ONLINE-ONLY STORY: A LONG LASTING IMPACT

Tahawna Roberson (left) and Marixsa Sanchez (right) hug each other after a chance-encounter on the streets of Buffalo's 14215 zip code. Roberson's life was changed nearly two decades ago when she became a client of Sanchez's Community Health Worker program under the Buffalo Prenatal-Perinatal Network.
Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News

During the Community Health Worker’s outreach, Marixa Sanchez had a chance-encounter with a woman who became a client of her program almost two decades ago.

Tahawna Roberson was a teenager when she got pregnant and the only experience she had was from a high school practice dummy called “baby think-it-over.”

“I really had no clue about being a mother,” said Roberson.

The Buffalo Prenatal-Perinatal Network became part of her life during a school presentation. They supplied her with diapers and milk, and connected her with insurance and medical care. But the education they gave her is what she found most important.

“Because it was scary being a mother and going to school,” said Roberson. “It was scary back then, but I got through it, thank god.”

Today, Roberson’s baby boy is 19, and she’s got a soon-to-be 11-year-old who she was far more prepared for the second time around.

“So I learned my lesson. And I am a married woman now,” Roberson said with a laugh. “I learned the hard way. But you know what – that program is very important for young teen girls.”

The encounter started with a handshake, but Sanchez left Roberson with a hug and a big smile.

“I love it,” said Sanchez. “I’m so happy that she benefitted from it. It makes me really happy and it motivates me to keep on doing what I’m doing.”

Looking for more information about health outcomes in pregnancy and children’s lives? Here are some of the sites WBFO’s Avery Schneider used in his research:

Buffalo Prenatal-Perinatal Network, Inc.

ODPHP’s Healthy People 2020 Maternal, Infant, and Child Health Objectives