In Akron, Ohio, we think it can. In 2013, the state of Ohio deemed Akron and Summit County as one of nine Ohio Equity Institute (OEI) communities due to its extremely high infant mortality rate, particularly in the African American community.
Over the next four years, the community rallied around the idea to provide educational support and a more concerted effort around clients that were in their programs. However, the infant mortality rate was not decreasing, especially in Akron, the largest city in Summit County. In 2017, one year after taking office, I created Full Term First Birthday (FTFB), a cooperative collective initiative that included all organizations working towards decreasing infant mortality in Akron and Summit County. Spearheaded by Tamiyka Rose, current City of Akron Deputy Chief of Staff (f.k.a. City of Akron Health Equity Ambassador), and Shaleeta Smith Director of Family Health of Summit County Public Health, FTFB took a different approach to tackling the problem of low-birth weight, prematurity, and unsafe sleep.
Ms. Rose and Ms. Smith believed that it was not only the lack of access to healthcare in the first trimester that was driving the numbers but also existing health disparities such as lack of safe, affordable, stable housing, lack of education, and lack of opportunities for employment to name a few. From 2018-2019, FTFB focused on helping pregnant individuals remain in their homes if they were at risk of being evicted. The two were adamant about ensuring pregnant individuals were housed, as they had learned disturbing data that if a pregnant individual spends just one-day experiencing housing insecurity, it increased their probability of delivering a child prematurely. At first, this was funded by a small grant from Medical Mutual of Ohio, but the need grew beyond measure. Luckily, a philanthropist I had met during a conference in the spring of 2019 presented the City with a large gift that allowed us to create the FTFB Eviction Prevention Fund at the United Way of Summit and Media Counties.
To be eligible to receive funding from the FTFB Eviction Prevention Fund, a birthing parent had to be a client of one of the FTFB member organizations. In addition, they had to take three free financial coaching sessions offered by the City of Akron’s Financial Empowerment Center hosted by the United Way of Summit and Media Counites. After serving over 75 clients in 2019, it became apparent that some of the clients would not be able to sustain themselves even after the assistance and training they were receiving.
The collaborative came together at the end of 2019 during their annual retreat and identified that their parents needed job training. One of the collaborative’s members, Summa Health, had started a pilot workforce development program for the birthing parents in their Centering Program. Ms. Smith and Ms. Rose realized that this was a perfect opportunity to expand this resource to the entire community.
Ms. Smith reached out to The Well Community Development Corporation, the organization responsible for organizing the job training cohorts, and the rest is history. The City of Akron, Summit County Public Health, and The Well now have a contractual relationship with each other along with an Economic Mobility grant from the National League of Cities to provide job training to FTFB families.
How Does the Program Work?
To date, the Well CDC has supported seven cohorts totaling 48 individuals focused on training them in industries such as manufacturing, construction, customer service, and culinary arts – sectors that are viable within our community. The program has been successful with 28 graduates that have gone on to employment or additional education.
The Well CDC provides a five-week long training program that addresses the foundational work that is necessary for participants to increase financial stability and build a successful career that can lead to increased economic mobility. This work is made possible by leveraging partners from Ohio Means Jobs to help with traditional job readiness to Akron Public Library which is helping to address digital literacy. The program also is rooted in addressing trauma and confronting limiting beliefs that participants may have. This means participants engage in peer-to-peer supportive conversations and meet therapists and coaches who present on a variety of emotional wellness topics. To top it off participants also complete a six-hour workshop geared toward supporting job retention and can access three free therapy sessions with a licensed counselor through a partnership with the University of Akron and others.
The City of Akron and our partners know that even the best-developed programs still may not meet the needs of those that we truly need to reach and that is why this program also includes thoughtful support to help address long-term barriers such as affordable child care that will allow parents to work a full-time job and earn a living wage.
Will This Decrease the Infant Mortality Rate?
I have faith that this program will turn the trend of infant mortality in Akron and Summit County. Tamiyka and Shaleeta follow the data over five-year periods, they identify problems and dig deeper into the issue. They encourage the members of the collaborative to continue to educate the community around the effects that stress has on a birthing person’s pregnancy, especially on those of African American descent. Full Term First Birthday not only focuses on culturally competent care in all hospital systems in the area but on social determinants of health as well. I believe in five years we will see a dramatic decrease in our infant mortality rate thanks to the efforts of the collaborative to focus on housing and workforce development for the clients they serve.
About the Author
Mayor Dan Horrigan – City of Akron, OH