Ella Baker knows a thing or two about babies, having raised six of her own. Her youngest is a couple weeks shy of 20.
But when Baker, a Camden resident, got recruited last summer by the Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative (SNJPC) to teach other women how to take better care of themselves and their babies, even she had a few things to learn.
She discovered that babies should be put to sleep on their backs, not on their stomachs as she was taught. And that the first few months are especially crucial in the development of an unborn child.
"I really thought it was good information," said Baker, 46. "I thought it was very needed."
And so Baker became a Trusted Link, part of a cadre of women armed with information to spread in a grassroots battle aimed at fighting infant mortality and improving women's health. Organized by three regional New Jersey women's health organizations earlier this year and funded by the Horizon Foundation, Trusted Links uses peer education to change health outcomes for women and their babies in Camden, Trenton and Newark.
Infant mortality and poverty are ongoing battles in these cities. In each one, Trusted Links recruited 50 women who were given health information and tasked with reaching out to 10 other women or girls to pass on what they had learned. The goal was to reach a total of 500 women statewide, but many of the Trusted Links didn't stop there.
"We've had them come back to us and ask, 'Can we do more? Everyone wants to know this,'" said Barbara May, SNJPC's director of policy and program development.
Trusted Links is meant to complement other maternal health projects in the Garden State, said May. But its premise is one that healthcare advocates have long understood: people feel more comfortable confiding health concerns to individuals they know than to a stranger in a white coat.
"We have often recognized that women rely on people they know for health-related information," May said. "They'll go to someone they know before they ever go to the health system."
In Camden, the need for reliable health information is considerable.
From 2013-2015, the city's rate of infant deaths in the first year of life was 9.2 per 1,000 live births – twice the state average, according to New Jersey health department data. Low infant birth weight was a factor in nearly 82 percent of those deaths. Maternal health risks associated with low birth weight include poor nutrition, cigarette smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, and stress. Research also indicates that a woman's health before pregnancy can also affect her baby's birth weight.
The data suggests that one of the most promising ways to reduce infant deaths in Camden is to improve maternal health. That's where the Trusted Links come in.
Baker, who lives in Camden's Peter J. McGuire Gardens housing community, found her students by canvassing the neighborhood.
Some women were surprised by the information Baker shared, like how important good maternal health habits in early pregnancy are for the baby's development.
"They didn't think the beginning made a difference," Baker said. "A lot of people think because the baby isn't developed yet" that period isn't as important.
Rochelle Griffin, 52, who lives in the William Stanley Ablett Village and works as a Trusted Link, thinks peer education is a wise approach.
"A lot of these young women come in pregnant, and I think the doctors stereotype them, so they're not always honest about what's going on with their bodies," Griffin said. "Then we have doctors – I call them the so-called preach doctors. Once you start preaching, they're not going to come out and say, 'Oh, I did this; oh, my body's doing that.' They're going to say, 'Yes, sir, yes, ma'am,' and they're going to leave it alone."
Griffin said she learned some important lessons, too.
"I, at 52, had never had a mammogram until I had that class. I always checked myself in the bathroom," she said.
Griffin has shared what she learned with her neighbors, members of her church and even her 15-year-old pregnant niece, Ivy, who lives with her. Griffin told the teenager about the importance of taking pre-natal vitamins, cutting out soda and eating healthy. With her encouragement, Ivy started walking more often for exercise. Ivy has even encouraged her aunt to stay on a healthy path, too.
"We help each other," Griffin said.