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A collaborative media project focused on the basic information needs of often underserved communities.

Informed Communities: Stark County Program Helps Families At Risk for Infant Mortality

A photo of THRIVE unloading supplies for their dropoff.
Stark County THRIVE hopes to do another supply drop off soon.

With COVID-19 straining public health care, Stark County is taking a practical approach to help families vulnerable to infant mortality. The THRIVE program has shown significant progress in reducing the racial disparity that, statewide, reveals Black babies continue to die before their first birthdays at twice the rate of white babies. Now, in this time of the pandemic, community health workers are delivering tools to help families stay safer.        

Scrubbing countertops and other household surfaces can kill the coronavirus, but community health worker Draya Ellis said for some of her poorer clients vital cleaning supplies can be hard to come by.

“These are just items that they always tell us that are not covered by SNAP benefits that they have trouble getting ahold of every month, not just because it’s COVID, but every month,” she said.

A photo of the cleaning and personal care supplies Stark County THRIVE donated to families.
Stark County THRIVE supplied 300 families with cleaning and personal care supplies.

Ellis works for one of the 11 Stark County agencies that partner with THRIVE in an effort to prevent and reduce infant death and disparities in birth outcomes. With input from 22 community health workers and help from nonprofit church and business partners, THRIVE delivered cleaning, personal care products, and masks to 300 families. They include Tyja Cabil, who is pregnant and a single mom of a toddler and a 9-month-old.

“It really helps, especially with the babies, cause they touch and put everything in their mouths,” she said.

THRIVE, which is managed by Canton’s Public Health Department, earned praise for nearly eliminating the racial gap in infant mortality in 2018, and it appears to be on trend for similar results, according to preliminary data from 2019. However, THRIVE project manager, Dawn Miller, cautioned that it is important not to celebrate too early and that a more reliable measure of several years is needed. Still, she is happy that the collaborative is clearly making a difference for 1,200 clients.

“And what we consistently heard from them was, ‘My community health worker looks like me. She’s very responsive to my needs and to my questions, and she’s there to support me,’” Miller said.

Ellis, who has been a community health worker for four years, is an African-American grandmother who raised her three children as a single mom.

“I feel like that connection and them knowing that I used to live in housing, that I used to get assistance. They know that I’ve been there, done that, and it’s easier to have that bond with them,” she said.

A photo of Tyja Cabil, her toddler and her nine month old.
Tyja Cabil of Canton is a pregnant mom with a toddler and a nine month old.

Cabil said Ellis helped her through a turbulent relationship with her unborn baby’s father, which has since ended. She trusts her with questions about vaccinations for her children, doctor’s appointments, and anxiety over COVID-19. Living on her own now, she said Ellis’ support is more vital than ever.

“To have someone to talk to and to check on me not just for the appointment reasons, but, ‘How you been?’ Just asking about my well-being as the caring person that she is, it just takes a lot of stress off of me,” Cabil said.

She wishes Ellis could come back to her home for the in-person visits that were a crucial part of their relationship before the pandemic struck. But she understands that’s not possible for now. So health workers and clients are either meeting virtually or, in Cabil’s case, Ellis talks to her over the phone at least twice a month.

“I have clients who have been with me since the beginning of COVID, and they’re still here so we’re doing something right,” Ellis said.

Miller said the combination of community health workers and services such as the domestic violence project, fatherhood coalition, and early childhood resource center make THRIVE’s efforts more substantive and far-reaching.

“That has been the proudest moment of my career here is seeing how a community can come together to tackle an obstacle or an issue such as this, but we’re not taking our foot off the gas. We have to keep on addressing it,” she said.

In the immediate future, Miller hopes to secure funding for another cleaning supply drop off to hundreds of doorsteps. That includes a drop off with Cabil, who is eagerly anticipating the arrival of her baby boy in November.

Kelly Murphy Woodward, a regional Emmy Award-winning producer, loves to tell a good story and has been privileged to do that for more than 20 years, working in public television and radio, commercial news and running her own production business. She is passionate about producing quality programming for Northeast Ohio.