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Orange Mound community baby shower seeks to empower lifetime of community health

By Cole Bradley, High Ground News

Balloons, finger foods, tiny clothes, smiling guests, and mounds of diapers. On August 18, The House in Orange Mound at 3028 Carnes Avenue was buzzing with all the signs of a typical baby shower with one major exception. Instead of one mom-to-be, they celebrated more than a dozen.

The first Orange Mound community baby shower was the vision of JUICE Orange Mound’s founder, Britney Thornton. Founded in December 2016, JUICE uses grant money, partner support, and the community’s spare change to develop innovative ideas in Orange Mound.

The shower was designed to show the community’s new and soon-to-be parents that even in one of the city’s most disinvested neighborhoods, they have a wealth of resources and the whole village of support to raise a healthy child.

Supporters like The House, who supplied refreshments and a space for the event in their 100-plus year old restored Victorian. The House provides programming for women including cooking classes, literacy help, gardening, spiritual counseling, and job readiness. They also employ Orange Mound women through their sister company, My Cup of Tea. To-date the specialty tea shop has employed around 25 women.

Related: “From sweet to salty, Orange Mound eateries prove experienced hands make the best food”

At the shower, expectant and new parents received diapers and wipes, baby clothes, a wearable infant carrier, a co-sleeper to keep baby safe at night, and other basics. There were raffles for gift baskets and a crib and the chance to meet with service providers including the Shelby County Health Department, Memphis BSTARS breastfeeding support, and CHOICES Memphis Center for Reproductive Health.

“As a midwife, as a Black midwife, I think it’s really important that we support pregnant women in our community. We recognize that our numbers in terms of maternal morbidity and mortality and infant mortality are extremely high,” said Nikia Grayson, a certified nurse midwife with CHOICES who hosted at the shower a discussion on birthing options.

A JUICE team member stacks diapers and other gifts. (Cole Bradley)

“As an expectant mom, it was a wonderful experience,” said Yvonne Parron, who was one of the shower’s honorees and spoke on the importance of fitness for pregnancy and childbirth

“There were a lot of great resources, especially for new moms. Breastfeeding, how to set up your car seat, a midwife. And just the support of having other pregnant moms, that communal feeling and talking to each other, was a great thing to have,” she added.

Parron is a personal trainer who has hosted a fit mom series on WREG and is concerned for the health of mothers and babies in Orange Mound.

According to BetterTennessee, Shelby County has the second highest infant mortality rate, which includes any infant who dies during birth or the first year of life. Memphis’ rate is 8.2 deaths per 1,000 live births. The national average is 5.8.

The Centers for Disease Control notes some of the leading causes of death as birth defects, premature birth, low birth weight, and pregnancy and maternal complications.

In Orange Mound — a majority-Black, low-income community — the likelihood of all health concerns increase.

“We know that Orange Mound is an impoverished community, and we top the charts in a lot of the health disparity issues that plague impoverished communities,” said Thornton.

It’s not to say that low-income people of color are biologically less capable of having a healthy pregnancy or properly caring for their infants, rather, social institutions like the economy, education, and healthcare systems are full of barriers and inequities for racial and economic minorities.

According to the Shelby County Health Department, the 38111 and 38114 ZIP codes of Orange Mound have some of the city’s highest rates of poverty and lowest rates of educational attainment, healthcare coverage and food access. Add that to a lack of transportation and employment opportunities and the deck is stacked against a healthy pregnancy and baby.

And over that baby’s lifetime, a continued lack of resources can lead to chronic illness and chronic stress that lead to higher rates of serious conditions like heart disease and premature death. The Shelby County Health Department also notes high rates of diabetes, stroke, cancer, and heart disease in Orange Mound.

“People need opportunities to learn how to take care of themselves and take action,” said Kenya Holmes, a newly-appointed JUICE board member who noted the community’s lack of gyms, grocers, prenatal doctors and other health resources.

With the February closing of the 2269 Lamar Avenue Kroger, the area’s only grocery store,
JUICE’s focus this year has been on maintaining and improving community health. They held a health fair, a small business workshop for financial health, the community baby shower, and will soon host their first 5K walk-run.

Related: “Orange Mound residents protest their closing grocery store

Expectant moms and their guests enjoyed snacks and tea provided by The House and My Cup of Tea. (Cole Bradley)

But even if access were improved, the medical industry has a well-documented racial bias that affects Black mothers regardless of wealth or resources.

Black women are 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth than their white counterparts, according to ProPublica and the CDC. Black infants have twice the rate of infant mortality of white infants.

Even things like breastfeeding are racialized. African American women are less likely to be properly counseled and supported on breastfeeding by medical professionals and more likely to formula feed.

“If no one in her family has breastfed and her doctor’s not talking about it, when does she bring up that conversation? And does she know that that’s what her breasts are for?,” said BSTARS’ Shukura Umi, who was a consultant at the Orange Mound baby shower.

BSTARS specifically focuses on Black moms and their support networks to encourage and support breastfeeding. They hope to help normalize breastfeeding with consistent education and close that gap between white and Black mothers.

These numerous health disparities are rooted in the same inequities that prompted Orange Mound’s founding as Memphis’ first post-Civil War community for and by African Americans. As early as 1890, citizens of Orange Mound could buy land and own a home or business, and they could visit a Black doctor or receive other services.

Today that spirit of self-reliance is fueling the grassroots efforts of JUICE and its partners.

“We are the homegrown funding source of Orange Mound … essentially we collect spare change and invest it in the community in the form of community based projects,” said Thornton.

Related: “New leaders bring progress to historic Orange Mound

“We know that all our parents are parents in need so we just want to connect with them and let them know early on that they have a support system they can tap into,” she continued.

“That’s why we chose The House in Orange Mound [to host]…we’re all about building partnerships with our fellow organizations and organizers,” she continued.

The relationship with JUICE board member, Kenya Holmes, is another critical partnership. Holmes is a Community Ambassador Fellow with health insurance provider Cigna. Three months ago she started working on an idea for a community garden and wellness center in
Orange Mound. She met Thornton, their visions aligned, and they’re now nearing completion of the JUICE community garden at Cella Street and Park Avenue and a wellness center at 850 Hanley Street.

Holmes said that despite its challenges, there are many positive things happening in Orange Mound, like the increased presence of community and private gardens and aerobics classes housed at the outreach center run by the Landmark Farmers Market. JUICE’s goal is to improve communication between the efforts, help get the word out to community members and provide a space to come together and focus on health.

The bottom line for the community baby shower and JUICE as a whole, she said, is to empower people with education and ownership in their own wellness and to improve the community’s health beginning at birth. It’s a reimagining of the self-sufficiency of Orange Mound’s own infancy. If the system works against you, build your own system. But critical to the system is a healthy foundation and healthy babies and bodies to build the dream into reality.

“[JUICE] wants to mobilize the community, revitalize Orange Mound, but you can’t do that with unhealthy people,” said Holmes.

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