Mother of Five, Mentor to Many

At Vitamin Angels, we know it’s the power of our community that makes our work possible.

By Marina Mendizabal

Across our 300+ field partners in the U.S. are thousands of dedicated caregivers who work tirelessly to meet the needs of those they serve. These individuals provide knowledge and resources (like our prenatal multivitamins) while sharing compassion and care. We’re honored to introduce you to just one of them here. Meet Keyawna.

Keyawna's smiling face and colorful scrubs are a familiar sight for families around Baltimore. Stories abound of this vibrant soul showing up on the doorsteps of pregnant women with a bag full of groceries when she heard they were concerned about not having enough food in the fridge. For some, she was there when no one else was on the day it mattered most - the day they delivered their baby.

Rewind to the very start, when moms first learned they were pregnant, and Keyawna was there, too. For mothers who come to Baltimore Healthy Start, the Neighborhood Health Advocate (NHA) serves as a real lifeline. To Keyawna, this is more than just a job, “it’s not like I am going to work... It’s like I am going to go make a difference today, I am going to go change someone’s life.”

Keyawna began working as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) in Baltimore hospitals in 2005. She found herself consistently gravitating toward the labor and delivery or pediatrics unit, "My passion has always been moms and babies - everything about the women."

This deep desire to support the mothers in her community comes from her personal experience, "I was a teenage mom. My first son I had at 19, so...

"I know some of the struggles [moms go] through. Trying to work, trying to go to school, trying to take care of a baby, a new mom, sometimes you have support, sometimes you don't."

Looking to shift her career to something focused on her interests, she searched for "mother baby programs in Baltimore," and Baltimore Healthy Start (BHS) emerged at the top of the list. To address the needs of high-risk women and their families before, during, and after pregnancy, Healthy Start, a national program, provides grants to communities with rates of infant mortality at least 1½ times the U.S. national average, and high rates for other adverse perinatal outcomes (e.g., low birthweight, preterm birth, maternal morbidity and mortality). The description of BHS sounded like a perfect fit, a non-profit providing " services to pregnant and postpartum women, their infants and fathers living in socially, economically and medically disadvantaged communities."

At the time, BHS was seeking someone who could fill the varied role of a Neighborhood Health Advocate (NHA). As one of the first and consistent points of contact for a mother, an NHA performs monthly to bi-monthly home visits and provides individualized support to each family for the duration of a mother's pregnancy and through the first 11 months of a child's life. Keyawna applied immediately.

"I wasn't a Neighborhood Health Advocate, but I knew I could fit the description that they were talking about." Keyawna's interview with the Executive Director of Baltimore Healthy Start went very well; however, due to funding limitations, they weren't able to offer her the position. The unfortunate news didn't deter the passionate health care professional. Keyawna called every month for over a year until she got the news she had been waiting for, the position was hers.

As a mother of five and a medical professional, together her skills and life experience go beyond what many see on paper. "...A lot of our moms don't have someone to look up to, and even though my job is a neighborhood health advocate, I'm like a mentor to them, and they look up to me. I meet all of my clients where they are, and I let them know that I was once in your shoes before."

Since joining the Baltimore Healthy Start team in 2018, Keyawna has taken every professional development opportunity available to better serve mothers and families, including becoming a certified doula. Now, working as an NHA and a doula, she can make even more of an impact on her clients' lives, "Usually a doula only does two prenatal appointments. By me being an NHA and a doula, they get extra benefits because I see them from the time they get pregnant all the way until the baby turns 11 months. So I'm there on a day-to-day basis...

"I'm constantly encouraging them, and motivating them, and educating them on what's right and what they should do, but I still let them make their own decisions and form their own opinion. I'm just their big support system."

One of the tools that Keyawna is grateful to share with pregnant moms is the prenatal multivitamins Vitamin Angels distributes to Baltimore Healthy Start. "I wish other programs offered their clients Vitamin Angels...the baby and mom are getting all the benefits that they need from taking these prenatal multivitamins."

The work of NHA's like Keyawna, paired with the other services BHS provides, are making a huge difference in the community. Less than a decade ago, according to BHS, one in five infants in Baltimore died each year, with those deaths accounting for 20% of overall deaths in Maryland. Through a combination of increased access to care and services provided by organizations, like BHS, the landscape is changing. According to BHS' website, they "are proud to be part of the movement that has helped drop the Baltimore City Infant Mortality Rate for the third year in a row."

It's thanks to dedicated individuals like Keyawna that we can create a healthier world for every mother and every child today and every day.