It wasn't until Zakkiyya Salahadyn was 39 and pregnant with her ninth child that she learned about Blanket of Love. She was at Ascension St. Joseph hospital in Milwaukee for prenatal care when she saw a flier for the program.
Zakkiyya Salahadyn, third adult from left, and other Blanket of Love mothers celebrate at a birthday party for their babies in October. Ascension Wisconsin sponsors the program, which offers assistance to dozens of teenagers and women each year as one means to reduce infant mortality in the Milwaukee area.
"At that time, I was in recovery, having a history of addiction and mental health issues, and I was looking for a support group so that I could maintain a healthy pregnancy and continue to live a healthy life," Salahadyn says.
She called the number on the flier and was soon connected with a support group and a staff of experts who offered education on how to care for herself and her unborn child and tips on good parenting. They also made sure that she had access to prenatal care and healthy food.
She credits the assistance and encouragement she got through the program for a healthy pregnancy that led to the uncomplicated birth of her healthy daughter, Rosemary, in August 2019. It also helped her get firmly established in a productive, addiction-free life that includes taking college-level courses toward her goal of becoming a social worker. "I really feel very strongly that I am in a very good place because of Blanket of Love," she says.
Addressing infant mortality
Ascension Wisconsin sponsors the program that enrolls dozens of teenagers and women each year as a means to reduce infant mortality in the Milwaukee area, with a special focus on Black residents. Data compiled by the Milwaukee Health Department show that Black infants there are three times more likely than white infants to die before their first birthday.
The program uses an evidence-based model to promote women's and infant's health before, during and after pregnancy to improve the likelihood of good outcomes. It is administered by a registered nurse, social worker, community outreach coordinator and community health worker who work with participants from pregnancy to their baby's first birthday.
Blanket of Love includes these services:
- Support groups and networking opportunities.
- Case management of mothers and infants, including telephone consultations.
- Personalized referrals to public and private community resources to help with needs such as food and housing.
- Childbirth, safe sleep and breastfeeding education classes.
Blanket of Love Sanctuaries, a partnership between the program and 36 churches and faith communities in the greater Milwaukee area, provides additional resources such as meals, mentorship and spiritual guidance to an estimated 4,700 families annually.
Determined to help
Julia Means, a registered nurse with the parish nursing program at Ascension Columbia St. Mary's Women's Hospital Milwaukee, is Blanket of Love's founder. She is so renowned in Milwaukee for her work with expectant and new mothers that last year Mayor Tom Barrett proclaimed Oct. 22 as "Julia Means Day." Means serves on the city's board of health, advising officials on policies and practices to improve population health outcomes.
Means says she started the program in 2004 after attending a conference convened by the Milwaukee Health Department on how to address the city's high infant mortality rate among Black residents, despite not having any training as an obstetrics nurse. She was so jarred by statistics shared at the conference, including that the rate of deaths for Black infants in the city was higher than in some developing nations, she knew immediately that she wanted to act.
The city department was about to join a national effort to help expectant mothers considered to be at risk of poor outcomes. Means says she and several of the volunteers she worked with through the parish nursing program were eager to join the effort, but they wanted it to be faith-based. That didn't mesh well with the national program, Means says, so that's when she came up with Blanket of Love.
She got training through the obstetrics department at Ascension Columbia St. Mary's Hospital Milwaukee and staffers there helped her write a curriculum to guide young mothers through the self-care required for a healthy pregnancy. The program is now offered to women at 16 sites including hospitals and churches in and around Milwaukee. Pregnant women are referred by clinics and community groups. Normally, the expectant mothers meet in person weekly with program staffers. They share a meal and then take part in group discussions on topics such as proper prenatal care or what to expect during the first days, weeks and months of parenthood. Because of the pandemic, those meetings have moved online.
Learning to pray
Means says Blanket of Love is grounded in Christianity and traditional family values. "The first thing that I teach the girls is, as a mother, you must learn how to pray. You are going to be praying for the rest of your life for this child.
In this December 2019 photo, Zakkiyya Salahadyn holds her baby, Rosemary, then 4 months old.
"I do promote marriage. I promote normalcy of what a family is supposed to be, that this is your responsibility, God has blessed you with this child," she says.
In its first years, most of the mothers-to-be in the program were in their middle teenage years. These days, Means says most are 19 or 20. Despite the participants being older, the problems that imperil their pregnancies are just as complex. Many of the women are from low-income one-parent homes and dealing with the effects of substance abuse and domestic violence. "Most of them don't come from stable homes and so they really enjoy having older women near," Means says. "And I always say the Bible says that the older women are supposed to teach the younger women, and we do."
Salahadyn says she wishes she could have been part of Blanket of Love long ago. It might have prompted her to take better care of herself during her earlier pregnancies, prevented some of the health issues she deals with now and caused her to rethink some relationships that weren't healthy.
"But, listen, I'm grateful that they were there when they were," Salahadyn says. "I think it matters the most for me now."
The program has helped her manage her mental health and move on to a better life. She's built a stable home for her family in the suburb of Waukesha and she's managing to juggle parenthood with two jobs and college classes. Little Rosemary is healthy, walking and learning to talk.
Means calls the program's participants her "Blanket girls" and, like Salahadyn, many have continued to come to meetings or reach out to staffers for parenting support long after their babies are born. "That's why we have kept going with the parenting program, because they would not leave," Means says. "Once they had the babies and the babies met their first birthday, they still stayed connected to us."
Means says many of the mothers and their families also stay involved with the churches that came to their aid through the Blanket of Love Sanctuaries program. They join the choirs and Bible study groups and develop long-term nurturing relationships with older members.
While she can't point to studies or statistics to show that Blanket of Love has lowered Milwaukee's high infant mortality rate, Means says that to her knowledge all of the babies born to the hundreds of mothers who have taken part in the program have survived. She also is unaware of any of the girls born to her earliest Blanket girls becoming teenage mothers themselves.
"I don't think or believe that it's just because of us. I believe that this program is anointed and appointed by God, and that God has covered our children because that is the prayer that we have," she says. "We pray that our babies are safe, and that they reach adulthood, and be able to be excellent members of the community."
Donations to Blanket of Love can be made through Ascension Wisconsin Foundation here.
— LISA EISENHAUER