Raising NY Leaders Spotlight: United Way of Buffalo & Erie County

Editor’s Note: In an ongoing series “Raising Leaders”, Raising NY will feature coalition members and how their collective work supports making New York State the best place in the country to raise a child.  

United Way of Buffalo & Erie County brings people, organizations, and resources together to create systemic community change. As a member of the Raising NY coalition, the organization works to help initiatives that get pregnant women and babies off to a healthy start.

“One of the sad realities here is that we have the worst premature birth rate in any large city in New York,” said Mary Comtois, program director of health initiatives at United Way of Buffalo Erie County. 

In Buffalo and Erie County alone, one-third of infant deaths are related to premature birth-related causes. Women with inadequate prenatal care are 1.5 times as likely to have a premature birth, and those with no prenatal care are 5.5 times as likely.* 

UWBEC, a member of the Raising NY coalition, is working to reverse this trend and improve maternal health in the region; and, above all, involve moms-to-be, moms, and the surrounding community in conversations and focus groups to center their experiences and perspectives about what they need. 

“We sit down with moms and ask what was their day-to-day like to find out what the pain points are in the community,” Mary said. “We use this to co-design our programs in collaboration with pregnant moms, health care workers, and trauma-informed care givers.”  

Premature birth is a higher risk for moms who have a shorter space between births. Through focus groups, UWBEC uncovered that one common cause of premature birth is the lack of access to information about family planning. Since then, this finding has guided their work on education initiatives with community-based organizations.  

Another key challenge Buffalo moms face, as well those in regions across the country, is inaccessible, or unaffordable public transportation. This issue — of numerous systemic challenges — is one that many moms endure to get proper maternal care. 

In particular, one mother that UWBEC spoke to needed help getting to a clinic for a prenatal check-up, but had not been able to obtain transportation from family members nor did she have enough money for the bus. 

“She walked five miles in zero degrees without boots,” Mary said. When she got to the clinic, staff was able to give her a bus token to get home — but that doesn’t entirely make up for the stress her body endured getting there in the first place.   

That’s where one of UWBEC’s programs, GO Buffalo Mom, came into picture, which was co-designed with 50 moms. The program secures moms with transportation for a full day for appointments, and also helps them coordinate other errands they have. In addition, the program connects moms to online services that can fill their health and nutrition needs without having to leave the house. 

Aside from visiting the clinic when preparing to and give birth, UWBEC, in partnership with the March of Dimes, launched a doula taskforce to support a state pilot where doula care is eligible for Medicaid reimbursement in Erie County. This program aims to address maternal mortality rates, especially disparities for Black women, by connecting women with trusted doulas from the surrounding community. UWBEC hopes others can learn from the task force should reimbursement become available in their communities. 

Yet, an infant and mom’s healthy birth is only the beginning of a journey to better life outcomes. Kathy Jamil, director of education at UWBEC, focuses on early childhood education and health to ensure when children enter school, they are prepared and healthy. Among other interventions, this work can start with partnering with clinics or home visitation efforts to introduce books and literacy strategies. 

“Does the infant or toddler try to turn the page — or have other milestones? Those types of opportunities are critical to get them in the habit of literacy,” Kathy said.  

In Western New York, there is a large population of immigrants, including refugees from war torn countries, who struggle to adapt and do not know what their options are when it comes to their children, child care, and education. This is one of many reasons why UWBEC’s programs and initiatives on maternal health and early childhood education are central to the region.  

As a member of the Raising NY coalition, UWBEC has the opportunity to extend beyond the Buffalo and Erie Country region that they know and serve and engage in statewide advocacy.  

“Hearing the members’ work in different regions of New York State has been eye-opening, whether it’s work in advocacy, Medicaid, child care and, more,” Kathy said. “The coalition helps drive and align the work in terms of our own priorities.”

 *Source: Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, University at Buffalo 2013-15; featured in UWBEC’s Report Card on A Profile of Premature Birth in Erie County (2017).