ST. LOUIS • Never underestimate the power of a few kind words.
Ally Dixon, 21, has a baby girl on the way. She has a pretty name picked out: Joelle Eliza, the Eliza for Elijah in the Bible. She has the due date: Jan. 12. Her boyfriend is excited to be a dad and a breadwinner to support them.
But she also has her worries. She has no family in town. Her mom died when she was 14. And she’s been mostly on her own since moving from California to Kirkwood when she was 17.
“I’m kind of just floating, and I’m just nervous,” she said.
Recently she got a homemade gift from a stranger that didn’t cost a dime. Yet it made her feel like she was part of a community of women, so much so that she burst out: “Pregnant women unite.”
It was a letter of encouragement penned by a volunteer through a new initiative in St. Louis called “Letters of Love.”
“When I got it, I was like, ‘A letter for me? Really?’” Dixon said. “I got this letter that said, ‘You’re the glue and you’ve got to keep it together,’ and it spoke to me. And she didn’t even know me. It felt good to know there are other women that think like you, and you’re not alone.”
The program, launched by the Maternal Child and Family Health Coalition, welcomes people to write letters of hope and encouragement to expectant or new moms who aren’t always blessed with family or other community supports.
These moms are prone to worry a lot about bills, housing, transportation, safety and getting by with a baby, often on their own.
The letters are short and simple by design. The writers tell the mothers, “I made it, you will, too.” Or, “You are their first friend, first teacher and first cheerleader. There is no one more important than you.”
Letter writers receive few instructions beyond speak from the heart with your own experiences, keep it positive, and most profoundly, “Imagine how mothers in poverty would feel if they felt like they had unconditional support from their entire city.”
Leaders at the Maternal Child and Family Health Coalition said the letters are meant to help moms fight off the societal stigma of being low-income and having a baby. That, in turn, builds confidence and reduces stress in the mother, before and after a birth.
“If we can do one thing to help a mom feel just a little bit better in her pregnancy, then we feel that’s one positive step forward,” said Angela Fulbright, development director with the organization.
It’s a small gesture to tackle a big problem, particularly for St. Louis, because stress among mothers is proving to be a public health issue. A growing body of research suggests too much stress can trigger preterm labor and increase the risk of infant mortality.
St. Louis has some of the worst infant mortality and preterm birth rates in the country. The region recently got an “F” for its rate of preterm births from the March of Dimes. It’s also been widely reported that the region has infant mortality rates rivaling third-world countries in some of its poorest ZIP codes.
The Maternal Child and Family Health Coalition launched a campaign in the fall called Flourish to better address the issue and gain better community involvement. The letter-writing project is one of its first community-wide initiatives.
Organizers have asked attendees in other Flourish events to write the notes, but they are hoping to widen the net. They’ve recently added a place online where people can type letters to mothers. They also welcome handwritten letters that can be mailed to or dropped off at their St. Louis office, 1300 Hampton Avenue.
The letters are delivered to the mothers by various agencies. Dixon’s letter was delivered by a nurse with Nurses for Newborns, which provides prenatal and postpartum home visits to mothers and infants.
The letter program is modeled after a similar campaign run by Cradle Cincinnati, a maternal support agency founded in 2012. CEO Ryan Adcock said the agency immediately realized that negative judgments against pregnant, low-income women actually posed a threat to a healthy pregnancy.
“We know the less social support a woman has, the more likely she is to lose her baby,” he said.
“So this program a way to tell women we support them and that we’re excited about this new neighbor of ours coming into this community. We see every pregnancy as an opportunity for Cincinnati.”
Adcock said his organization also found that letters delivered during prenatal exams helped strengthen the bond between a woman and her medical providers. That relationship encouraged mothers to keep their future appointments — a key prevention of infant mortality.
‘I TRY TO INSPIRE’
The organization also learned that mothers who faced hardship with their own children often write the most inspiring letters.
In St. Louis, for example, Delois Blue, 47, offers wisdom to moms because she and her husband raised seven children in low-income neighborhoods.
Blue said she often gives small gifts and poems to pregnant mothers in the Clinton-Peabody Housing Complex where she lives, to let them know someone is thinking of them. But the letter project inspired her.
“I just let them know I’ve been through it seven times,” she said. “I try to inspire them and say, ‘Don’t ever give up. It can be hard and difficult, but you made the right choice having the child.’”
Dixon, awaiting the birth of Joelle Eliza, said she read her letter at just the right time. She was having a rough day and wondered if she could make it in St. Louis, or if it would be better to head back to a broken family in California.
She nearly cried when she first read:
While you are preparing for your child, I urge you to be compassionate for and with yourself. Regardless of your circumstances, you are the one that holds the glue. Good luck as you experience motherhood.
The letter was signed by a woman named Yasmina.
“Yasmina,” Dixon said after reading the letter aloud. “It’s a beautiful name.”