When the Care Net Family Resource Center holds its annual Walk for Life on Saturday, it will not only be raising funds for its cause, but raising awareness of an important community health issue: infant mortality.
The annual walk, which will take place during National Infant Mortality Awareness Month, provides essential funding for the nonprofit Racine/Kenosha area crisis pregnancy center, which has been helping mothers raise healthy babies for 27 years. And its mission is especially important today, as greater Racine deals with its growing crisis of having the worst black infant mortality rate in the state, according to statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
"Wisconsin has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the nation, specifically for African-American women, and Racine has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the state," said Judy Van Swol, executive director of Care Net of Racine and Kenosha. "These statistics mean that our mothers - and our community - have a great challenge in bringing up healthy babies."
Care Net's mission is to help those mothers - and fathers - deal with such challenges. Founded in Kenosha in 1984 by five pastors seeking to provide viable resources for single mothers, the agency today promotes life-affirming options for pregnant women through counseling, education and support.
Since 1994, it has been part of the national Care Net organization - a Christian network of more than 1,200 centers - and it aims to provide help, hope and healing with services ranging from pregnancy tests and adoption referrals to parenting classes, material assistance and post-abortion peer counseling. All services are provided free of charge and confidentially, for up to two years after the birth of the child.
"The face of pregnancy crisis centers has changed through the years, from what used to be pregnancy testing centers to full-service facilities," Van Swol said. Care Net's services, for example, include programs about dealing with issues such as domestic abuse - something that 85 percent of the agency's clients report they have dealt with, she said. "We want to help them learn to manage their own life, as well as the life of their child."
In its first year, the Kenosha agency served 60 clients, and Care Net's presence since then has grown to include offices in Racine, which opened in 2007. The two locations combined provide around 300 client services per month today.
Most clients are unmarried women based in Racine County, with some from Kenosha and northern Illinois. They range in age from young teenagers to 45-year-olds, with all ethnicities represented, according to Van Swol.
"We serve anyone who is pregnant or facing issues of parenting," she said.
Topics covered in Care Net's parenting classes range from baby development and car seat safety to building self esteem and money management. And the agency offers extra incentive for attending classes through its "Earn While You Learn" program. By going to class, mothers can earn "baby bucks" to spend at Care Net's Baby Boutique. They can also earn bucks for doing homework and for being on time to appointments, said Donna Hammond, Care Net center director for Racine. And the bucks can be used to pay for everything from baby clothing and equipment - such as strollers and baby bouncers - to diapers, wipes and formula.
"They can earn up to two dozen diapers and a pack of wipes per visit," Hammond said.
All items available at the Baby Boutique are donated by churches, individuals and organizations throughout the community. The agency accepts new and gently-used clothing up to size 3T, and what they tend to go through the most of are consumables, Hammond said.
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Donations, in genera l, are essential to Care Net's operation, as the agency does not receive funding from the government, she said. Most of its funding comes from the Walk for Life fall fundraiser and a banquet held in the spring, with occasional grants from organizations.
"I find that if people come and see what we do here, they are happy to donate," Hammond said.
Care Net also offers incentives for fathers to attend their programs, as part of their overall effort to strengthen the family, and provide babies with all of the support they need, Van Swol said.
"Our goal is to truly equip these parents for the responsibility and challenges of parenting that lie ahead."
The reward, for those who work at Care Net, is seeing their clients' babies being delivered full term, and hearing testimony from the mothers about how much they have learned through the program, according to Van Swol.
"It is such a joy to watch these women - many of whom are scared and have no support system when they get here - transformed into confident parents."
For those services it cannot provide, Care Net refers clients to other agencies (it does not offer abortion referrals). "There are so many beneficial programs out there," Van Swol said. "Our goal is connect them to as many organizations as we can."
In the last couple years, Care Net has been part of the Greater Racine Collaborative for Healthy Birth Outcomes, which was formed in 2010 and is working to reduce African-American infant mortality in greater Racine (see accompanying story for more).
"Care Net is a very active member of the collaborative," said Carole Johnson, director of local and regional community programs for the Johnson Foundation, one of driving forces behind the collaborative. Care Net is very concerned and committed to helping babies and mothers thrive, Johnson said.
Van Swol said her particular goal this year is to make sure people understand the reality of the situation facing moms, dads and babies in Racine.
"We first have to educate people before we can do something about it," she said. "As a mother, a grandmother and a Racine citizen, (the infant mortality rate) is an outrage to me and we want to be a part of the solution to that."