Fresno women's group quietly helps new moms

The Fresno BeeMay 10, 2014 

Packages tied with pink and blue ribbons await Fresno County's newest mothers at the Department of Public Health's nurse-family partnership program offices.

They contain a handmade blanket, booties and hats, along with socks, clothing, receiving blankets, soap and a greeting card. The gifts serve two purposes -- they help young mothers who may not have a support system and give nurses an opportunity to reach new parents who may have prior experiences with law enforcement or other agencies.

"The women we visit don't have a lot of resources, so this may be the only gift they get," said Rose Mary Garrone, Fresno County's director of public health nursing. "I think it's very powerful because they are impacting women who don't have a whole lot."

The gift packages are put together by a handful of women from east-central Fresno's Trinity Lutheran Church, who have been giving gifts to Fresno County's newest moms and their tiny offspring for the past 35 years. Last month, the women were proclaimed a Public Health Champion by the Fresno County Board of Supervisors for their labor of love.

Since the program's inception, more than 5,000 women have received layette packages.

The church women volunteer their time to knit items and buy baby clothing and supplies for the program, using their own money and donations. The gift bags are picked up by Fresno County's Department of Public Health and public health nurses deliver them to new mothers, many considered high-risk or with significant financial need.

County officials note that the gifts reduce the stresses of a nurse's visit while sending new mothers a message that nurses are on their side, Garrone said.

The nursing program serves 250 new mothers: 87% are unmarried and the median age is 18, according to county documents.

Visiting nurses weigh and measure infants, ensure they are being fed correctly, teach new mothers about infant behavior and encourage breast-feeding and good nutrition.

The hope, Garrone said, is that the nursing program will help reduce the stresses in a new mother's life.

"These women's lives are not always simple," she said.

All volunteer effort

The Trinity Lutheran Church women are part of the Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and get grants through church-related organizations to help pay for the 15 layettes they produce at the church each month.

"All of us have a soft spot in our hearts for babies," Marcia Gutierrez said.

It wasn't always that way, said Gutierrez, who helps put the packages together and arranges for clothing shipments from Gerber. Until about 15 years ago, the women bought lightly used clothing at thrift stores or garage sales and bought their yarn and materials for knitting.

Today, they buy receiving blankets, "onesies" and "sleep and play" outfits through Gerber.

Buying in bulk gives the layette program access to church grants and stretches their money.

It used to cost $9 in material to knit one receiving blanket, Gutierrez said, but receiving blankets from Gerber cost $1.10 each.

Gutierrez, who previously ran a home for babies in foster care, estimates the women spend about $3,000 yearly on items.

The women in the group -- ranging in age from 69 to 87 -- say they don't deserve all the credit, because family members, friends and other organizations help them produce the layette packages.

They are assisted by a knitters group, Warming of Fresno, who make squares that the church group knits into blankets. Gutierrez's daughter, Susan, makes the cards.

Fellow group members -- Billie Person, Lynda Roberts, Helen Weinberg and Laurell Huber -- help knit and get packages ready for delivery. Huber is a second-generation participant. Her mother, now 98, was part of the project in its early days.

The layette project started modestly when Debbie Wilk, a youthful public health nurse who attended the church in the late 1970s, saw a need for new mothers when she traveled around eastern Fresno County. She said she was stunned by the poverty.

"I went to very poor areas," she said. "Some people wouldn't even have a rag to wrap their babies, they used newspapers."

Wilk, who now manages workers' compensation cases for federal employees, asked fellow parishioners to offer donations to help families she visited.

"I felt there was a need and the church was able to start donating with diapers, maybe a bottle and a blanket and then the public health nurses would take them out," she said.

Often, Wilk said, they could help one family a month.

"I am amazed the women have kept it going," she said.

And the women are excited when their efforts are acknowledged by a family that receives their gifts, Gutierrez said. Every couple years they get a thank you card and read it aloud to one another, over and over.

The women who write "are so thrilled to learn that somebody cared about them," she said. "That makes us feel good."

In the home

Public health nurses are health liaisons for new mothers and their babies. A mother qualifies for the visitation program if she or her baby is on Medi-Cal, but she must enter the program prior to 27 weeks of pregnancy, said Vicki Irwin, a county public health nurse.

The nurses visit every other week until a child reaches the age of 2.

Julia Landa, 23, and her boyfriend, Gregory Keluche, 24, had their daughter, Emma, at the end of March. They both work full-time in fast food and Keluche is in the automotive program at Fresno City College. Landa is on leave until the end of June to care for Emma. They live with Keluche's mother, who will take over Emma's care when Landa returns to work.

The couple learned about the program when Keluche's father was at a health fair and asked questions about programs for babies and pregnant women.

Landa is glad he did. When Irwin visits, she checks Emma's health and makes sure Landa is coping well.

With Emma curled up sleeping against her chest, Landa says she didn't realize the learning curve for her baby would be so steep. She now knows why Emma gets grumpy, her different types of cries and more about breast-feeding.

Irwin "brings a lot of good information I wouldn't have otherwise known about when I was pregnant, what to expect in the delivery room and what to expect after she was born," Landa said.

Last week Landa and Keluche got their pink ribbon-wrapped layette. Inside were baby clothes, receiving blankets and a knitted blanket, which Keluche said will come in handy during Emma's "tummy time," a newborn exercise program that Irwin said builds neck and back muscles and physicians say reduces SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).

After looking over the items, Landa said she was surprised -- and grateful -- at how much was in the bag.

"There were like six outfits, the two blankets, two receiving blankets, the hat that was knitted and the socks," she said. "It's really good that they do this for moms because there are some who don't have much or who can't make ends meet."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, or @beebenjamin on Twitter.

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