Ohio ranks near the top in the national infant mortality rate, especially among African Americans. Five Shaker Heights women have taken the first step to help reduce that catastrophic statistic.

By Beth Friedman-Romell
Babies Need Boxes Ohio volunteers

From left: Ellen Loughan, Sarah Garver Megenhardt, Elizabeth Dreyfuss, Celina Cunanan, Lily Dreyfuss, Blair Barnhart-Hinkle

Blair Barnhart-Hinkle, Celina Cunanan, Elizabeth Dreyfuss, Sarah Garver Megenhardt, and Ellen Loughan gave birth this past October to Babies Need Boxes Ohio, which provides safe sleep spaces and childcare products to expectant mothers whose babies may be at risk of sleep-related death. Their goal is to reduce infant mortality while providing support to new parents.

The program is modeled on Finland’s Baby Box tradition, which successfully reduced the country’s infant mortality rate from one of the worst in the 1930s to one of the best in the world today. BNB Ohio was the second program of its kind in the U.S., after Twin Cities-area resident Danielle Selassie introduced the concept to Minnesota in 2015.

The need here is great. In 2015, Ohio ranked 45th in the nation for infant mortality, with an overall rate of 7.2 deaths per 1,000 live births. Moreover, there is a large racial disparity between white babies (5.5) and black babies (15.1). That means that in 2015, a black infant born in Ohio in 2015 was more than three times as likely to die as a white one. Tragically, the rate in the City of Cleveland is even worse – 20 deaths per 1,000 births in 2015, according to the Ohio Department of Public Health.

Babies Need Boxes Ohio’s long-term goal is state-funded, universal box distribution.

Hathaway Brown Early Childhood Educator Elizabeth Dreyfuss, and her 10-year-old daughter, Lily, wanted to help make a difference for some of these young families.

Lily recalls being excited at the idea of making change. “That’s a big thing for me. It would help lives. Maybe it seems like infant death doesn’t happen a lot, but my mom tells me it does.”

Lily’s mom continues, “I had heard back in graduate school about how Finland supports infant development and parents, and I had also seen the BBC article ‘Why Finnish Babies Sleep in Cardboard Boxes.’ I believe that a society that supports all mothers and children is going to thrive and do well.”

Since 1937, the Finnish government has given all expectant mothers a maternity package consisting of clothing, outdoor gear, bathing products, bedding, and a small mattress. It’s packed in a lightweight, safe, recyclable, portable cardboard box that becomes baby’s first bed. The baby box is designed to give all children in Finland, regardless of background, an equal start in life, and Finnish families love it.

Dreyfuss suggested that Lily make a pitch to fund a Baby Box program at a girls’ giving event last summer. When the group decided to fund a different charity, Lily was crushed.

At that point, Dreyfuss contacted Selassie in Minnesota, to find out what would be involved in starting a chapter in Cleveland.

“Danielle said, ‘Get a board of trustees, get a collection space and storage space together, and let me know.’ A lot of people call her, but very few follow through. We did it really fast, thanks to the most exceptional group of women I’ve ever seen.”

An All Night Drive

A robust network of Shaker neighborhood friendships and the power of social media allowed Babies Need Boxes Ohio to coalesce as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in a matter of weeks. The impetus for such haste was Selassie’s request that the group coordinate their first box distribution with a distribution she was planning for Minnesota on November 15 last year.

“That’s what’s so great about living in Shaker,” says Dreyfuss, who grew up in and still resides in the Onaway neighborhood. “Within a week, we had a director of midwifery, someone with non-profit management experience, an MBA, a lawyer, and an early childhood educator, all a purse-throw away from each other.”

Dreyfuss’ sister, Ellen Loughan, was immediately sold on the idea, and soon recruited friends Sarah Garver Megenhardt, Blair Barnhardt-Hinkle, and Celina Cunanan to the board.

As a senior manager at Ernst and Young, Loughan offers organizational and business practices expertise to the group. Non-profit expert Megenhardt has coordinated the group’s social media and fundraising efforts, along with securing storage space and creating their volunteer database. Barnhardt-Hinkle provides experience in government relations, grant writing, and non-profit management. She says that her role as director of Government Relations for the Cleveland Clinic allows her to combine her personal and professional interest in the issue.

Clinical expertise is the specialty of BNB Ohio board member Celina Cunanan, who directs the Division of Nurse-Midwifery at University Hospitals MacDonald Women’s Hospital, and is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Case Western Reserve University. She also runs the CenteringPregnancy program at UH, which provides education and group support to expectant moms and their partners. Cunanan also facilitates BNB Ohio’s connection to several community-based maternity care programs. Executive Director Dreyfuss has been the main liaison with the Minnesota headquarters. Each of these busy working mothers donates many hours per week to the fledgling organization.

“Everything is volunteer-run,” says Megenhardt. “It’s a good number of hours, maybe five or 10 per week, more around the time of an event.”

The group’s first distribution event almost didn’t happen. The women discovered that there had been a delay shipping the boxes from Minnesota. Celina recalls, “I had 20 moms and dads coming to the Centering Program for boxes—and no boxes coming. So I got on the phone with Danielle [Selassie], just to see if there was anything we could do. Danielle apologized, got off the phone, and then almost immediately texted me, ‘I’m gonna drive them to you.’ I texted, ‘Oh, no, you’re not’; she texted back, ‘Oh, yes, I am!’ She drove all night, got them here the day before the distribution, then turned around and drove back. That’s dedication.”

The distribution went off without any further glitches, on the same day as the distribution in Minnesota—November 15. It was held during a CenteringPregnancy session at UH’s MacDonald Women’s Hospital in University Circle.

It’s Not Just About the Box

Helping babies is an easy sell. BNB Ohio’s Facebook page got 20,000 views in its first three days. The organization already has 40 names in its volunteer database, representing folks eager to help out putting together boxes, raising or donating money, and/or collecting items to augment the basic supplies. Megenhardt says that a fundraiser at Ben & Jerry’s made more money than one of their best regular days. One of Dreyfuss’ colleagues at Hathaway Brown is knitting baby caps for the boxes. The Children’s Book Bank has agreed to donate culturally appropriate baby books, and the Northeast Ohio chapter of the American College of Nurse Midwives has designated BNB Ohio as its charity recipient this year.

But the baby box is more than just nice swag. In order to receive her box, each mother completes an educational component about parenting, childcare, and safe sleep, either through a CenteringPregnancy program or on-line at Baby Box University, an education module offered free by the Baby Box Company, the exclusive supplier of the boxes.

According to Dreyfuss, the California-based Baby Box Company’s business model is “profit with a purpose.” In addition to their on-line retail business, the company donates boxes and basic supplies to Babies Need Boxes chapters in Ohio and Minnesota. The non-profit groups supplement the contents, and arrange for storage and distribution.

The basic box comes with diapers, books, a thermometer, a mattress and sheet, sleep sack, information packet, breastfeeding support items, and access to Baby Box University online. BNB Ohio supplements the box with more baby care products, teething rings, and postpartum care supplies. They try to tailor the contents to the individual families involved. For example, the group is currently collecting information packets and children’s books written in Arabic for several Syrian refugee families.

For such a young organization, the board is already dreaming big. Dreyfuss hopes for Ohio wide distribution. The long-term goal is state-funded, universal box distribution. “We’d like to supply boxes for anyone that has the need,” says Dreyfuss.

Cunanan believes our society falls far short in post-partum care. “Some women are under so much stress. There may be violence in their community, they may lack food or have poor living conditions…there’s no childcare, no breastfeeding support. As midwives, we’re always wanting to do more.”

Megenhardt says, “That post-partum period, especially for the first child—it doesn’t matter how much support you have, it’s still hard.”

“It’s not just about the box,” says Selassie. “It’s about education, parental support, lowering infant mortality. Everybody’s raised up.”

Organizationally, BNB Ohio plans to expand its partnership with other community organizations, and diversify the board to reflect the various communities they serve. Appreciation for diversity and altruism are values each woman mentioned as reasons why they choose to live in Shaker. Loughan concludes, “Truly, people are what holds a community together. We have some of the most amazing, talented, interesting, caring, diverse people right here in our backyards.”

Originally published in Shaker Life, Spring 2017.