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Location set, NJ maternal health center eyes future

Updated: Dec 16, 2022

Trenton facility will need public, private funding to fight birth crisis

New Jersey’s new maternal health center is starting to take shape, with significant funding in place, a location in Trenton identified, an architect drafting preliminary plans and backing from a powerful local church active in the community.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) joined Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer), Rev. Charles Boyer of the Greater Mount Zion AME, Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora and community leaders Monday at a Pennington Avenue building owned by Mount Zion’s community development arm. Their purpose was to highlight their plans to renovate the space to offer birthing services, maternal health programs and other community supports with use of $2 million in previously announced state support.

“When we talk about this community’s needs, we need this maternal health center. We need this hub,” said Reynolds-Jackson, who has been active on women’s health issues. There is no longer a birthing center in Trenton, she said, stressing that women need access to high-quality, culturally appropriate care.

The health center is one piece of a larger effort to improve birth outcomes in New Jersey, which has some of the highest maternal-mortality rates nationwide — and some of the worst racial disparities. Black mothers are seven times more likely to die in childbirth here than white women, and fatalities among Black children are three times higher than among white babies in this state.

Nurture New Jersey research has shown Trenton to be a ‘birthing desert,’

given the lack of resources.

A Trenton-based maternal health center has always been a crown jewel in the Nurture New Jersey program spearheaded by first lady Tammy Murphy to improve birth outcomes and end racial-outcome gaps — but plans have been somewhat nebulous. The New Jersey Economic Development Authority solicited input from dozens of stakeholders on the future of the center; ideas ranged from an academic collaborative to a workforce development effort to a community health center.

While Tammy Murphy was not at the Mount Zion event, Tyler Jones, a spokesperson for the first lady, said Monday that Nurture New Jersey research has shown Trenton to be a “birthing desert,” given the lack of resources, and deserves administration support. “Creating a stronger and fairer maternal and infant health care system is a collaborative effort, and first lady Murphy is eager to work with various partners from across the state to make New Jersey the safest and most equitable place to raise a baby. The Greater Mount Zion Black Maternal and Infant Health Community Hub for Restorative and Social Justice program is a welcome addition to this effort and will help to better serve the mothers and babies of Trenton,” Jones told NJ Spotlight News.

Need remains urgent

Organizers of Monday’s event said the need for services in the Trenton area is well-established, and limited access to care remains an urgent problem, especially for Black and Hispanic mothers. Boyer said the Pennington Avenue site — just around the corner from the Henry J. Austin Health Center — is within a community that is 84% Black and has a median annual income of $14,000. “What this center could be is phenomenal,” he said.

To make it happen, the Greater Mount Zion AME’s Community Development Corp. is working with Trenton leaders to build support for the plan; organizers said they are also talking with health care providers about potential partnerships. The group tapped architect Christopher Bobbitt, founder of Interurban Architecture in Princeton, to design renovations for the second-floor space in the now empty building. The plan envisions homey-looking bedrooms with colorful pillows, soft lighting and bathtubs or hot tubs for water-birth options.

Boyer said building out the center — which they hope to open in early 2024 — is expected to cost between $3.5 million and $4 million, so the state’s investment is a good start. “We’re not going to do it all with government money,” said Jeannine Larue, a Trenton leader and board chair of Mount Zion’s CDC. “We are going to the private sector. We are going to foundations.”

Crystal Charley-Sibley, a Trenton-area doula and founder of Melanin and Maternal Wellness, an advocacy program for Black mothers, is also actively involved in the project. In addition to birthing services, she envisions a center that also offers childbirth education, classes for fathers, information on perinatal mood disorder and links to other services, like housing assistance or other health care.

It’s ‘like the Super Bowl’

“The birth itself is like the Super Bowl,” Charley-Sibley said, “but you aren’t getting to the Super Bowl without a lot of preparation.”

The Pennington Avenue site, adjacent to Mount Zion’s former church, will also house the Trenton Restorative Street Team, a violence intervention and prevention organization. Charley-Sibley and others said both programs are focused on restoring wellness to communities that have for years suffered extreme violence, poverty and poor health.

“This is full circle,” Charley-Sibley said. “This represents community. This represents the village.”

Organizers said the maternal health center would include doula and other birth services provided by Melanin and Maternal Wellness, Charley-Sibley’s group, plus programing by the church’s community development organization.

The Economic Development Authority has also been working with several academic organizations to conduct community “listening sessions” to help fine-tune plans for the center and has been conducting a search for a leader. The status of these efforts was not clear Monday. But on Pennington Avenue, organizers made clear that while the initiative depended in part on state funding — for which they thanked Coughlin and Reynolds-Jackson — it would be driven by local needs, priorities and voices.

“This is community centered, community led,” said Rosalee Boyer, the reverend’s wife, known to participants as first lady Boyer.

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