WVU widens service area to assist pregnant women, parenting families

A West Virginia University-led effort is extending its reach to 11 Mountain State counties, providing more low-income pregnant women and families with children access to health care and life skills through the West Virginia Healthy Start/Helping Appalachian Parents and Infants — HAPI — project.

In partnership with local organizations, the program serves communities with infant mortality rates at least 1.5 times the United States national average and with high percentages of other negative maternal and infant outcomes. The goal is to turn around those numbers by reducing incidences of preterm labor and low birth rate and improving the overall health of mothers and families.

The HAPI project is administered by the WVU School of Medicine Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences and the WVU Research Office. A recent grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service will continue funding with $1.1 million annually for the next five years for assistance in Barbour, Harrison, Marion, Monongalia, Preston, Randolph and Upshur counties, while adding Doddridge, Hardy, Marshall and Wetzel counties.

For more than two decades, the program has partnered with community agencies and organizations to provide maternity services and a multitude of resources ranging from healthy solutions and preventative care to parenting education, career planning and personal relationship goals.

More than 800 West Virginia women or families participate each year. Once a baby is delivered, HAPI follows through with support for 18 months for mom, dad, the newborn and siblings.

“We are thrilled to have the opportunity to continue serving families in West Virginia,” Penny Womeldorff, director of the West Virginia Healthy Start/HAPI Project, said.

“We have spent 23 years building a network of providers and partners to address the needs of pregnant and parenting families and will now be able to continue to expand our reach to additional counties that need us. We want to keep growing and responding to the needs of our West Virginia families and contribute to the health and well-being of West Virginia in general.”

HAPI works hand in hand with Right From The Start, a state program that provides case management and home visitation services for pregnant women, postpartum women and infants up to age 1 year who have Medicaid, CHIP or maternity services coverage, and expands on those offerings.

“We partner with them to provide a much more comprehensive package of services for the families we serve,” Womeldorff said. “We use the same staff of nurses and social workers who provide both programs in our region. It’s a lot of case management and education centered around healthy pregnancy behaviors. We look at things like perinatal mood disorders and postpartum depression, anxiety and smoking cessation.”

For mothers who would like to try breastfeeding, HAPI offers education and consultation with certified lactation counselors. Womeldorff said that aspect of the program has shown success by increasing initiated breastfeeding rates from 59.7% in 2017 to 76.6% in 2022.

In partnership with the WVU School of Dentistry, the program also emphasizes oral health care by encouraging mothers, fathers and their children to visit a dentist. After a checkup, each family member receives a Sonicare toothbrush.

“We provide education around the impact of poor oral health and pregnancy because there is an association between periodontal infection and low birth rate and preterm birth,” Womeldorff said. “We’re trying to improve our birth outcomes by keeping everybody’s mouth healthy.” 

A fatherhood coordinator is also available to offer guidance on parenthood engagement and employment and relationship goals.

The program’s successes aren’t measured only in health and parenting outcomes, but also in the impact they’ve made on clients’ perspective for helping others.

“Over the years, we’ve had some clients come back and work with us as outreach workers and then go back to school to finish their degrees,” Womeldorff said. “One is now a labor and delivery nurse and another is working for a state health program. Others have come back to volunteer or participate in community events.”

Dr. Rawan El-Amin, HAPI’s principal investigator, gained insight into the program while completing her practicum for a master’s of public health degree at WVU prior to completing her medical training.

“HAPI is a great bridge between medical and social/community-based services,” El-Amin said. “This funding is critical to continuing our efforts of raising awareness and coordinating treatment of important conditions in pregnancy and the postpartum period. We are grateful for the opportunity to continue to care for our West Virginia families.”

Currently, Sadie Lobdell of Townsend, Delaware, a student in the Master of Social Work program, and Courtney Dillow of Mechanicsville, Virginia, a senior pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social work, are completing their practicum as Designated Care Coordinators and plan to continue working with the HAPI Project during and after their schooling. 

To raise awareness about prenatal and early childhood health, HAPI also hosts several community events. The largest, “Baby and Me Day,” takes place each year at the Meadowbrook Mall in Bridgeport and includes vendor booths from WVU Medicine and various state agencies.

“It’s an opportunity for folks to learn about pregnancy and parenting and fill out a referral for our program,” Womeldorff said. “Our goal is to support our families and help them make sure that they have everything they need through their pregnancy, through early parenting and helping them move from step A to step C or D, whatever that is for them.”

The WV Healthy Start/HAPI Project is funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration, the Maternal and Child Health Bureau Division of Healthy Start and Perinatal Services and is integrated with the state supported program, Right From The Start.

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