As new and expectant parents walked under a canopy of balloons into Clara Muhammad Square, they were greeted by a celebration of parenthood. Most items they might need for a newborn were provided, all carefully chosen to alleviate financial worries in the early days of being a parent. Some danced to the music and others hugged, as volunteers guided them around the many supply stations and resource tables that circled one of the park’s older trees.
The camaraderie and joy on this overcast summer’s day were by design, thanks to Michele LaMarr-Suggs, who inspired and oversaw the annual West Philadelphia event.
As a Penn Medicine certified nurse midwife and as co-pastor of the Movement Church, supporting the community has long been LaMarr-Suggs’ calling. So when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she wanted to do something to support her patients. Many of the Black and other patients of color who LaMarr-Suggs cared for at Pennsylvania Hospital were experiencing additional hardships. “I was seeing a lot of women who were gripped with fear of the financial instabilities resulting from COVID coupled with responsibility of bringing a new baby into the world,” she said, “so I thought of ways outside of work that I could support my patients.”
That’s when her idea for a community baby shower took hold. In just 30 days, LaMarr-Suggs mobilized her family and friends to host their first community baby shower for 100 pregnant women and their families from across the Philadelphia region in the summer of 2020. It was a celebration of the mothers-to-be and a chance for them to connect with each other. It was also an empowering community-based effort to help close the racial gap in maternal health for Black and other marginalized parents.
The 2020 shower has now become an annual event.
New and expectant parents can pick up diapers and formula and other necessities, but the event now offers more than just supplies: On hand in 2022 were pre- and postpartum doulas providing resources, volunteers handing out pantry items and fresh produce, and community members providing emotional support for what can be a trying and uncertain time in many women’s lives. Members of LaMarr-Suggs’ church were on hand to offer prayers and information to those for whom faith and a faith-based community can provide another foundation for ongoing support.
An aim of the baby shower is to help reduce the staggeringly high rates of maternal health inequity faced by Black and other marginalized communities in the United States. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, U.S. pregnancy-related deaths for Black women ages 30 to 34 are four times higher than for white women of the same age, and most pregnancy-related deaths are preventable. Women of color are also more likely to have certain birth risk factors which can severely impact their children’s long-term physical and cognitive health.
LaMarr-Suggs and her colleagues at Penn Medicine — both in Obstetrics and Gynecology and across the health system— are working as part of a system-wide effort to reduce these racial and ethnic disparities through a combination of innovative approaches in clinical care, research, and community outreach.
Community-led programs that provide pregnant people with vital prenatal through postpartum information, access to health care providers they trust, and essential supplies for their newborns, are one piece of the puzzle in reducing this inequality.
Fast forward two years, and the community baby shower has become an established community event, with 92 pregnant and new parents, ranging in age from 16 to 42, who traveled from across Philadelphia, Delaware County and South New Jersey to attend the event held June 11, 2022. Over 60 percent of them receive their health care at Penn Medicine.
Twenty-seven volunteers from LaMarr-Suggs’ work, family, and church assisted in giving out $14,000 in supplies to women and their families. Her nonprofit organization, Royal Generation, received financial and in-kind donations from organizations across the Philadelphia region. They included a Penn Medicine CAREs Grant, which supports employees’ volunteer efforts to help the community outside of work, as well as Beauty Over Ashes, Bountiful Blessings Food Pantry, Target, CocoLife.Black, Oshun Family Center, Color of Change, State Representative Amen Brown, Movement Church, Open Arms Doula Services, LifeNLactation, Pacify, Health Partners, The Wawa Foundation and Elated Creations.
Even with an army of volunteers and generous donations, putting on an event of this scale has not been without challenges. For LaMarr-Suggs — who has two full-time careers — the hardest part has been finding time to do everything. “I wouldn’t be able to do this without my husband, who’s been an amazing support of whatever vision I have, and the support of my family and friends. For Royal Generation, our tag line is ‘it takes a village’ and it truly is a village approach.”
Space has also been an issue — LaMarr-Suggs has already turned her home’s garage into a storage unit for in-kind donations and giveaways. “It’s a little limiting capacity wise in serving families. Not only do we do this for the baby shower but also if families reach out to us during the year, we are able to have storage to provide families [with items they need].”
“All of this has been helpful; you can never have enough diapers and stuff,” said Roshaanda Tolbert, who came with her friend Leona Pierce and first heard about the event on Instagram. “We wanted to get away from the kids for a bit and meet and mingle with other moms who are expecting.”
The supplies and supports offered at the baby shower would help fill gaps because they went above and beyond what families are able to receive from public assistance programs, Pam added.
Pam heard about the baby shower from event partner EricaLynn Cotton, who founded the organization Beauty Over Ashes after her husband died when she was seven months pregnant. “I was compelled to come because our stories were so related,” said Pam. “EricaLynn wanted me to come out and get some things and receive some help.”
Like Pam and Cotton, every attendee and volunteer had a story that inspired them to be there, with many already finding a way to pay the generosity forward.
“This year we had people reach out who were recipients [at the baby shower] in the first year, and this year they reached out again to volunteer,” LaMarr-Suggs explained.
Meanwhile volunteer Danielle Smythe is working to start a community baby shower in South Jersey.
In the same spirit, LaMarr-Suggs is already thinking about how to reach more families. “My long-term hope is to provide free childbirth education to underserved communities and provide services to communities in an effort to improve socioeconomic determinants of maternal health especially Black and brown women.” She also envisions providing “paternal health, because we know fathers play a huge role in the family unit,” and wants to organize a fathers’ gala that empower fathers in the community.
LaMarr-Suggs is already looking toward expanding her organization’s impact, with her family, colleagues and church community fully behind her.
As drizzle turned to heavy rain toward the end of the day, volunteers raced around covering supplies and helping attendees load their bags into cars. Without hesitation, LaMarr-Suggs found a mic and reminded everyone what they had already achieved together: “This is a village!”