Community leaders called the 2003 report a wakeup call for Michigan’s Kent County. The county’s Infant Fetal Mortality Review reported an exceptionally high black infant mortality rate: 22.4 deaths per 1,000 births, the highest black infant mortality rate of any municipality in the state.

“That galvanized the community,” says Peggy Vander Meulen, director of Strong Beginnings, a partnership of Spectrum Health and seven other community groups. The partnership, formed in response to the county’s findings, pooled resources to improve maternal health for minority women in the West Michigan area served by the Grand Rapids-based health system.

Curriculum designed for the specific needs of disadvantaged residents and a team of dedicated community health workers has helped Strong Beginnings reduce the black infant mortality and low birth-weight rates by half over the past decade. “We are reaching the most vulnerable families and helping them achieve good outcomes,” Vander Meulen says.

The program last month received a 2016 AHA NOVA Award, which recognizes hospital-led partnerships that help build healthier communities.  

Strong Beginnings aims to “help children grow up healthy and be productive members of the community,” says John Mosley, executive vice president of Spectrum Health.

The partnership works to address issues affecting maternal health, like poverty, unemployment, limited transportation and a lack of affordable housing. It provides outreach, case management, education, parenting programs and mental health services.

A team of 20 community health workers, many of whom are former Strong Beginnings participants, go into the county’s vulnerable neighborhoods to listen to new mothers’ concerns. They educate and encourage women throughout their pregnancies and through the first two years of their infants’ lives.

“They serve as peer mentors and role models providing social and emotional support,” Vander Meulen says.

The program offers a weekly breastfeeding support group and connects women to primary care providers. Nearly 75% of women received first-trimester prenatal care and 85% completed a postpartum exam within eight weeks of delivery.

A fatherhood program reinforces the importance of a father figure in child development. Of the more than 4,200 women served by Strong Beginnings, 92% are single and 18% are teenagers. More than half received no support from their child’s father.

The fatherhood program includes home visits, “Dads All Day” discussions in small groups and at local barber shops, and a dad parenting program that helps fathers build their parenting skills. They discuss topics like teen dropout rates, substance abuse, self-worth and promoting pride in their heritage.

“The mother did not create that child by herself,” says Shannon Wilson, executive director of the Grand Rapids African-American Health Institute (GRAAHI), which oversees the fatherhood program. “We want to empower fathers to be a vital part of the process. Even if they are not in the household, they can still actively participate in their child’s life.”  

Strong Beginnings last year extended its reach into predominantly Latino neighborhoods. Like its African-American counterpart, the program offers culturally and linguistically appropriate services for Latino residents, says Beca Velazques, director of programs at Health Net of Western Michigan.

“We’ve heard the stories from the community and have aligned our service delivery model to address residents’ needs,” she says. “You need to be deliberate and intentional in how you develop these programs – and you need to be guided by the community – if you are going to be successful in eliminating disparities in care.” 

GRAAHI’s Wilson says Spectrum Health’s leadership and dedication to Strong Beginnings “makes sure that African American and Latina mothers in our communities receive the care they need.”

But Spectrum Health’s Vander Meulen gives all credit for the program’s success to the new mothers, who she says take advantage of the program’s resources to get their babies off to a healthy start. “I admire their resilience, given all the challenges they face,” she says.