By JOHN W. GOODWIN JR.
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Several months ago Mariline Cole was summoned to the maternity ward at St. Elizabeth Health Center, where she was immediately taken into a delivery room.
There, she was told she was desperately needed by the woman inside -- due to give birth at any moment.
Through countless hours of time together and communication over the previous nine months, Cole knew exactly what support the woman needed.
She witnessed the birth of a healthy baby boy while talking the young mother through the procedure, holding her hand and eventually cutting the umbilical cord.
No, Cole is not a delivery room doctor. Nor is she a relative of the new mother's.
She is a "volunteer sister friend" with a program, co-sponsored by Humility of Mary Health Partners, called "Birthing Project: The Mahoning Valley Underground Railroad for New Life." The program pairs expectant black mothers with a mentor, or sister friend, and attempts to address any needs throughout the pregnancy.
The free program is in place all over the country and is sponsored locally by National Council of Negro Women and HMHP.
Making a difference: Cole said cutting the umbilical cord and assisting with the birthing process that day gave her the sense of helping to make a difference.
She and the more than 20 other sister friends in the program, however, start making a difference in the lives of the woman they mentor long before the delivery room.
Each woman who enters the program is assigned a volunteer mentor from the community who, over time, will assess the woman's needs and find ways to address whatever those issues may be. Volunteers attend childbirth preparation and parenting classes, and act as a birth partner if needed. They also see that the expectant mother has transportation to doctor visits, is eating properly and has necessary clothing for herself and the baby to come.
According to Elaine Wilson, director of the program, those are the interventions needed to ensure fewer babies are born with health problems.
Wilson said more black babies -- almost double that of some other groups -- are born unhealthy because of low birth weight, teen pregnancy, lack of access to health services, lack of education, and smoking and drinking during pregnancy. The program attempts to address that disparity by making sure each expectant mother gets first-trimester care and proper attention for at least one year after the baby is born.
Happy results: Shylene Artis, 22, smiles as she holds her happy, active and healthy 8-month-old daughter, Ya'Mina Dodson, and gives the birthing project much credit for arming her with the necessary knowledge and support to keep the toddler in good health and high spirits.
Artis was one of the first women to enter the local program. She said the information and help given to her by her mentor and program coordinator Marcia Thompson is priceless, and one day she hopes to pass that wealth of knowledge on to another young woman preparing to have her first child.
Volunteer mentor Anne Cobbin said seeing healthy babies such as Ya'Mina is what the program is all about. Achieving that level of health without the support of the program would be difficult for many of the children, she said.
"We are mentoring these young ladies as well as providing survivor skills and support because oftentimes they do not have a mentor in the home," she said. "We are there for their needs, sometimes just as someone to talk to and share problems with or making sure they make their prenatal clinic appointments. We don't want them to feel as if they are all alone."
Encouraging volunteerism: It is through the voluntary efforts of woman such as Cole and Cobbin, said Thompson, and other mentors that the program continues to be a success. Thompson encourages other woman in the community to volunteer their time as well. There are no set requirements to become a mentor, just a desire to help someone else, she said.
According to Wilson, the program has shown a 30 percent decrease in minority birth defects in California, and similar results are expected here.