The program aims to make an impact by educating women in the city's most vulnerable neighborhoods.

Homeless and six months pregnant, LaTeeya McGhee didn’t think anyone else at her first Moms2B meeting could possibly understand her predicament.

“All this stuff kept happening to me, and I didn’t think they could get it,” McGhee says, recalling how she looked around at the other women gathered at the Grace Missionary Baptist Church in Weinland Park to share a meal, talk about their lives and learn about having a healthy pregnancy. “But I thought, what have I got to lose?”

Now, more than two years later, McGhee is the one welcoming women, some just as uncomfortable as she had been, to weekly two-hour Moms2B meetings. Some are nearly full-term, some are newly pregnant and some are new mothers, but they’re all there to share, learn and support each other in their journey.

Moms2B is the brainchild of pediatrician Dr. Patricia Gabbe and infant mental health specialist Twinkle French Schottke. They started the program in 2010 as a 10-week research project aimed at helping women in poverty learn about nutrition.

The purpose, Gabbe says, was to try to figure out ways to reduce the high infant mortality rate among urban African-American women, which at the time was 12.2 deaths per 1,000 in Franklin County for non-Hispanic blacks, compared with 5.5 for non-Hispanic white mothers.

“I’d just moved here from Tennessee, and I was perplexed about that,” says Gabbe. After working on a government task force studying the issue, she decided to try to change the statistics. “I thought, let’s find a church where we can build a program around cooking and nutrition and give women education and support and see how receptive they’d be,” she said. “I had no idea who would come or how we would get women to come.”

That’s where Schottke came in. She’d created programs for young children before, and she was excited to start one for expectant mothers. Working through Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Gabbe and Schottke set up the first Moms2B program at Grace Missionary church with two participants.

As the number of attendees grew, the organizers decided to extend and expand the program. “By the time the first year was over, we’d had 30 women participate and we’d more than achieved our goal,” Gabbe says. The program grew to two sites, then three, and now has eight locations in the Columbus ZIP codes with the highest infant mortality rates: the East Side, Franklinton, Hilltop, Linden, Northland, the South Side, the Southeast Side and Weinland Park.

The focus also grew to include mothers with children up to age 1. “The moms wanted to come back and show us their baby, so we knew we needed to continue with infant care and child development,” Gabbe says.

Moms2B expanded in numerous other ways as Gabbe and Schottke learned what women needed. At its core is a weekly meeting at each site, where participants gather for a “sister circle” discussion, have a meal and learn about some aspect of pregnancy, child development or parenting. Child care and transportation are provided for those who need it, and the women also receive a $5 Kroger gift card.

Most newcomers hear about the program by word of mouth. Participants have ranged in age from 12 to 46, from first-time moms to a woman having her 11th child, says Schottke, the program’s director. An average of 20 women come to each meeting, and more than 1,500 women have attended over the years.

“I liked the fact that there were other moms there in similar situations,” says McGhee, now 33 and raising two daughters, ages 2 and 9, as a single mom. “I made friends there, and we’d go to the park together and share information.”

The meetings, Schottke says, “create an environment where people can learn together, where trust and relationships can be formed. It’s not about fixing anyone. We’re here to say, ‘What do you need, and how can we help you?’ ”

The help begins the first time a pregnant woman calls Moms2B to ask about the program. Whoever answers the phone immediately congratulates her on her pregnancy, the first step in creating a positive relationship. “Sometimes that’s the first time that woman has heard that,” Schottke says. “A lot of these women haven’t had a lot of things they could trust in.”

McGhee made good use of Moms2B’s services beyond meetings. She got counseling that helped her handle the stress of her situation, extra food from a Mid-Ohio Foodbank truck that visits monthly, and immunizations for her daughter from the Nationwide Children’s mobile medical unit that visits each site monthly.

“It helped me to stabilize and look at things differently, and so many blessings came after that,” McGhee says. “I learned a lot about who I am.” She’s now a full-time community health worker for Moms2B, facilitating discussions, mentoring other moms and reaching out to recruit new participants.

The program, now run out of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, has a $1 million annual budget thanks to the help of a multitude of community partners, including Columbus Public Health, The Columbus Foundation, churches and others. There is no cost to the women who participate.

CelebrateOne, a program established in 2014 to carry out the recommendations of the Greater Columbus Infant Mortality Task Force, helped expand Moms2B from four sites to eight and provides nearly half of its funding through a Medicaid grant, says Erika Clark Jones, executive director of CelebrateOne.

“Especially for moms who feel disconnected or isolated, this is a great program,” Jones says. “It often serves a population whose pregnancy care has been interrupted by life, so that their pregnancy is pushed into the background. It’s a wonderful place for moms to focus on themselves and their pregnancy and not all the drama that’s going on in the rest of their lives.”

Jones noted that of the 187 births among Moms2B participants in 2018, only one death occurred. She says Moms2B has helped with the troubling number of pregnant women in Franklin County who haven’t had any medical care before their delivery. That number, 400 in 2014, has been cut in half.

Another partner is Mount Carmel Health System, which provides a fully funded Moms2B site at its Healthy Living Center in Franklinton. Mount Carmel provides additional funding, as well as visiting nurses who get to know participants at Moms2B meetings. After a woman delivers, the nurse visits her at home to answer questions, check vitals and offer reassurance, says Mary Jo Dickinson, outreach operations director for Mount Carmel. “It’s the right thing to do,” Dickinson says. “Once a mom gets home, the impact we can have for those moms and babies is staggering.”

In addition to that nurse visit, a Moms2B staff person stops in to see each program participant in the hospital, bearing a diaper bag stuffed with a handmade blanket from the Common Threads Quilting Guild, knitted booties from a group at Temple Israel, and toys, books, clothes and nursing supplies, Schottke says. “It’s such a team effort; we couldn’t do it without the help of our volunteers,” she says.

Gabbe believes the program is having an impact on infant mortality, which fell from 8.7 deaths per 1,000 births in Franklin County in 2016 to 8.2 in 2017. Part-year 2018 data through November shows an even-lower 7.5, but the racial disparity persists: The rate for non-Hispanic blacks was 11.1—more than twice the rate of 4.9 for non-Hispanic whites, according to Columbus Public Health.

“That’s why we started Moms2B, to change that and end the disparity,” Gabbe says. “It takes time.”