SARAH VERBIEST

Looking Forward , Sarah Verbiest, founder of Every Woman Southeast, reflects on the new year and what it holds.

SarahDownsRecently, my fellow graduate interns and I had the opportunity to participate in the March of Dimes 2014 Lobby Day at the North Carolina Statehouse. As volunteers, our mission was to visit lawmakers in their offices and garner support for funding of the You Quit Two Quit program, an evidence-based program that focuses on tobacco cessation among pregnant women by providing support for women, and training for healthcare providers; and for maintained funding of the Healthy Baby Bundle of programs aimed at reducing infant mortality in North Carolina, including the NC Folic Acid and Preconception Health Campaign, Safe Sleep, and the East Carolina University high risk maternity clinic. All of these programs have been recommended and endorsed by the North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force as important initiatives to reduce the rate of infantAdvocacy Day mortality in North Carolina, which is among the highest in the nation.

When we arrived in the morning, dressed in purple to indicate our support for March of Dimes, we met the people we would be working with that day. We were given packets with the names of the legislators we were assigned to drop in on, and talking points for each of the programs for which we were going to be advocating funding. Afterwards, we were briefed by several individuals from the March of Dimes, including Tiffany Gladney, the Communication Coordinator, and the coordinator of Lobby Day, and Peg O’Connell, the North Carolina Chapter Advocacy and Government Affairs Consultant. They reviewed the talking points with us and answered all of our questions. We then broke into small groups, and began our visits with the legislators.

In all, my fellow graduate interns and I dropped in on 8 senators and representatives, including Senator Josh Stein, Senator Mike Woodard, Representative Susan Fisher, Representative Jean Farmer-Butterfield, Representative Susan Martin, Senator Don Davis, Senator Louis Pate Jr., and Senator Ronald Rabin. Throughout the day, we benefited from the expert advice and guidance provided by the leaders of our teams, Catherine Heindselman, Director, Eastern Carolina Division of the North Carolina Chapter of the March of Dimes, and Gwen Carmon, the National Director of Volunteer Diversity and Development at March of Dimes.

Lobby day attendees at briefingOccasionally, we were able to speak directly with the lawmakers, though in most cases, we spoke with an aide, and left materials for the senator or representative. When speaking to representatives and aides, we emphasized the importance of funding these programs for the reduction of infant mortality, and improving the lives of mothers and babies in the state of North Carolina. All of the lawmakers and aides expressed support for the March of Dimes, and were eager to learn more about the programs for which we were advocating funding.

At the end of each meeting, we took pictures with the Senator or Representative with which we met, and invited them to enjoy apple pie with us in the courtyard. Unsurprisingly, this was a big hit, and many people joined us for “Mom and Apple Pie”. This gave us an additional opportunity to speak with lawmakers and their staff about why the funding for these programs is so essential, and how it can save not only healthcare costs, but also the lives of so many North Carolina infants who die in the first year of birth.

3interns.AdvocacyDayBy the end of the day I was struck both by the astounding bipartisan support of March of Dimes we encountered, which I found particularly surprising and refreshing in this time of partisan division, and by the importance of talking directly to our representatives about those issues we find worth speaking up for. This was my first experience lobbying lawmakers, and while it seemed intimidating at first, it was the ideal introduction. The event was well organized, and a lot of effort was put forth to make sure that all of us volunteers were prepared for our meetings with legislators, and felt confident in our ability to advocate for the issues we feel strongly about. The cause of reducing infant mortality is certainly worth standing up for, and I felt confident representing March of Dimes, a well-respected organization with a 76-year history of improving the health and lives of mothers and children, from defeating polio to reducing infant mortality.

While I have always been interested in the political process, this was the first time that I involved myself in the process so directly, and it reminded me that the only way a democracy can truly function is if its citizens get involved.

Sarah Downs is a graduate intern at the Center for Maternal and Infant Health. She is currently attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Gillings School of Global Public Health, and majoring in Health Behavior.

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