Hollygrove initiative aims to improve kids’ outcomes from birth

City and state officials Tuesday detailed the second phase of a three-year initiative in New Orleans’ Hollygrove neighborhood designed to improve children’s health from birth by helping young mothers with other struggles in their lives.

The program, called Best Babies Zone and funded by a $300,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, is modeled on an approach taken by the Northern Manhattan Perinatal Partnership in a specific 14-block area in Harlem. That program reduced infant mortality by 50 percent in Harlem and improved birth outcomes.

The Harlem program offered not only prenatal care, but an extensive array of other services for women, as well as focusing on data gathering to determine what mothers needed. Harlem once had the highest rate of infant mortality in the nation.

Tackling the issue of poor birth outcomes — babies born too early or too small — is key because those children are more likely to deal with lifelong physical and educational struggles.

“Eighty percent of brain development takes place in the first 60 months of life,” said Kimberly Williams, program director of Healthy Start New Orleans. “If you build a house on a bad foundation, you have issues for years.”

Williams said research shows that the more a mother is stressed, the worse it is for her baby’s development.

City leaders envision the Hollygrove project as offering not only health services, but also focusing on educational and job assistance for mothers, as well as tackling general neighborhood maladies, such as blighted housing.

Although the Kellogg funding is for three years, officials hope the project will span a decade.

“The mayor sees this as a modern approach to public health,” said Dr. Karen DeSalvo, the city’s health commissioner. “We need to address non-medical determinants of health in order to really make a difference in generations to come.”

That thought was echoed by Mario Drummonds, CEO of the Harlem partnership.

“Making strategic investments in early childhood is how we solve our neighborhood problems.”

New Orleans is one of three cities in the country, along with Cincinnati and Oakland, where Best Babies Zone programs are being implemented. New Orleans’ zone — a .75-square-mile area bordered roughly by South Carrollton Avenue and Palmetto, Forshey and Mistletoe streets in Hollygrove — was chosen for its high numbers of low-birth-weight and premature babies, asthma among young children and high rates of poverty and crime.

Almost 20 percent of the babies born in 2012 to mothers who live in Hollygrove weighed less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces. In comparison, only around 13 percent of all infants born in the city last year were that small.

“One in five is born too soon in Hollygrove,” said Dr. Rebekah Gee, Louisiana Medicaid medical director and a maternal/child health expert.

Gee said program workers will go door-to-door to encourage 618 families with young children to participate.

Hollygrove was also selected as a Best Babies Zone because the area already has community organizations and activities in place that can help provide the multisector community resources that the program requires.

Those include the Carrollton-Hollygrove Community Development Corp., the Hollygrove Greenline recreational community space, Healthy Start services and others who are being recruited now, according to Wendy Hussey, the program manager for Best Babies Zone.

The project started collecting needs data in the neighborhood in September, with Williams saying that Tuesday’s announcement marked the second phase of the program and the push to enlist more partners.