SARAH VERBIEST

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

This month’s featured leader is Amy Mullenix, MSW, MSPH, Statewide Coordinator at the March of Dimes North Carolina Preconception Health Campaign. We recently asked her a few questions about her work and why she is involved with Every Woman Southeast.

Why are you involved in Every Woman Southeast?

Every Woman Southeast is unique in that it brings together states that share strong historical and cultural connections. I’m involved because we also share historically poor health outcomes that influence what I care about most – the health of women and their children. We in the Southeast fare poorly on national measures of chronic disease, sexually transmitted infections, obesity and infant mortality and morbidity. These challenges impact African-American women disproportionally and result in inequities in health outcomes. Every Woman Southeast gives us the opportunity to grapple with our history and its consequences, pushing us to find solutions to age-old problems that expand how we attempt to improve health. Our proposed life course approach provides a framework to think about how we can support women (beginning even before their own birth!) to achieve their fullest health potential as adults. Every Woman Southeast also affords us the opportunity to consider solutions that build on our shared strengths, such as strong extended family structures and faith communities. It allows us to meet with our peers from other states and think big about how to enhance services and social structures so that women and families can access meaningful opportunities to achieve their best health potential. It is sometimes difficult work, but I continue to participate because we need to leave a new legacy of equity for all of our citizens in the Southeast. In so doing we will achieve our other goals – improving birth outcomes and educational outcomes, for example – and cause a domino effect that reaches down through generations to come.

How long have you been in your current position?

I have been working for the March of Dimes since 2005. When I was hired, our Campaign was called the North Carolina Folic Acid Campaign, and it had already documented successes in decreasing neural tube birth defects in one part of the state. Our team expanded the Campaign across the state and incorporated social marketing and a dedicated Spanish-language campaign. Over the past several years we’ve seen a continued steady decrease in neural tube defect rates and a simultaneous refocusing on the health of women prior to and in between pregnancies as a way to improve women’s health and birth outcomes. Because folic acid consumption is one of the “flagship” preconception health messages, it was a natural progression to broaden our mission and include additional preconception health messages like healthy weight and reproductive life planning. In 2010 we changed our name to the March of Dimes North Carolina Preconception Health Campaign and updated our strategic plan to reflect our broader focus.

Tell me about one or two of the projects you are working on now.

One project that I am really excited about is our “Healthy Before Pregnancy” curriculum. We started developing a preconception health curriculum for high school students after realizing that the current curriculum fell short when it came to educating young people about infant mortality, healthy pregnancies and preconception health. The curriculum was released this year after extensive testing and features five lesson plans. It follows the NC Standard Course of Study and uses messages and activities that we tested with students throughout the state. Over the next few months our regional coordinators will be entering high schools to present the “Healthy Before Pregnancy” curriculum and talking with teachers about how they can incorporate it into their classrooms going forward. The ultimate goal is to have preconception health taught consistently in middle and high schools throughout the state. This will increase the number of young people entering adulthood with awareness of how their health is related to their future and that of their children.

Another project that we are working on is expanding our health care provider program in which our regional coordinators train health care providers about preconception health topics in their own clinical settings. We make the case for “every woman, every time” and connect the dots between women’s wellness and preconception health. This program has been proven to change provider counseling behavior about folic acid consumption; we’re currently expanding it to include trainings on healthy weight for women, reproductive life planning and tobacco cessation.

What is your favorite thing/task/part of your work?

I have two. First, the staff that work on our Campaign are consummate professionals who are a team in every sense of the word. I end many of my days thinking about how lucky I am to get to work with them. Second, North Carolina is extremely fortunate to have a large number of dedicated public health and medical professionals who work on preconception health issues. I love collaborating with individuals from other agencies and organizations who share common goals. I also enjoy working with our board and my role on the leadership teams of the North Carolina Preconception Health Coalition and North Carolina Birth Equity Council.

What is your biggest challenge?

Funding for preconception health programs such as ours is never certain, so the question for us is always…If our Campaign ceased to exist because of budget cuts, how would our messages continue to reach women? For every project we plan and program we work on, we always think about sustainability. We’re constantly looking for ways to integrate our messages into other programs and agencies so that preconception health becomes a core component of public health and medical practice rather than something that is the work of a particular campaign or agency. Sustainability is our greatest challenge but potentially our greatest accomplishment, too.

To find out more about what is happening in North Carolina, visit everywomansoutheast.org/partners/north-carolina and everywomannc.com.

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