SACRAMENTO — A pair of laughing 16-year-olds wanders into the office, arms around each other's shoulders. One girl is pregnant. "We live near each other, go to school together, but we never met until the Birthing Project," the pregnant one tells a reporter. "Now they'd have to tear us apart," giggles the other. For 14 years, Kathryn Hall used the term infant mortality and thought she knew what it meant.
She was, after all, a public health administrator who oversaw millions of dollars of state funds.
Then she held a dead baby in her arms for the first time.
He was an infant who need not have died. But his mother was alone, poor, diabetic and often too sick to get to the clinic by bus.
Hall, who heard about the woman through a public health nurse, drove to her house and took her to the clinic. But it was already too late. The baby, in extreme respiratory distress, had to be delivered by Cesarean section. He underwent brain surgery and remained on life support until he died 10 days later.
Even had he lived, he might have faced a hostile world. "We're spending $200,000 on this child, and he's probably going to grow up and mug me," one of his doctors had said.
Determined to cushion children against such hostility, and never forgetting the despair of that day in March, 1988, when she cradled the lifeless baby, Hall knew something must be done.
"Just like the word \o7 pregnancy \f7 never seems real until you feel life, infant mortality isn't real until you feel death."
Kathryn Hall had worried about the infant death rate for years. As a state administrator, she was angered by the "astonishing statistics" about black babies in California.
"They die at twice the rate of white babies, their birth weights are lower than all the rest," she says. Worse yet, it seemed that policy makers had begun to take the statistics for granted.
"I heard them say things like 'maybe black babies just naturally die more, just naturally have lower weights.' As a black woman and mother, I was outraged that this was accepted as a given in the health-care community. I did not think it had to be that way. Those assumptions were not OK with me."
In winter, 1988, she shifted into high gear with her plan to help "grow healthy black babies."
She would start "an underground railroad" of her own, she decided, to move women away from high risk and into healthier pregnancies.
Hall invited "the 10 toughest, most together black women in Sacramento"--and one male health care expert--into her living room. It was a diverse clan of volunteers--corporate executives, women in the arts and state employees.
Each volunteer was paired with a pregnant woman whose name Hall had gotten from a social service agency.
And the Birthing Project began.
Today, the more than 200 volunteers call themselves "sister-friends" because each offers the love and care of a family member or best friend. The pregnant women are "little sisters."
Each sister-friend maintains daily contact, helps find anything that's needed, makes sure doctor's appointments are kept and medicines are taken.
Sister-friends are present at each baby's birth, to welcome children into a world that values them. "We do not want any baby greeted with hostility in a world that believes it should not have been born," Hall explains.
Volunteers see the mother and child until the end of the baby's first year--and ideally, for the rest of their lives.
"We did not go into this because we love babies, but because we love healthy, caring adults," Hall explains. "And the way to grow those adults is to love them and treat them well from the moment they're conceived."
At 8:30 on a recent morning, the sparsely furnished Birthing Project office hums with activity. There are not enough desks or chairs for the five paid workers and the drop-in volunteers. The copier machine isn't working, the two phone lines are ringing.
"We're still $30,000 short and we haven't the foggiest idea how we'll pay the year's rent," Hall says. "There's no bathroom tissue left," a worker reports.
All is chaos, it would seem.
But not for Marianne. Angelic and pale, with a long tangle of blond hair, she croons contentedly to the 3-month-old baby in her arms: "Miss Kathryn is your grandma. Miss Kathryn loves us both. Everybody loves us here. This is now our home."
The little song continues until the baby's eyes close and Marianne herself can rest. She has already had a tough morning to overhear Hall tell it.
But Hall, 43, won't talk directly to the reporter hanging around. "There are lots of things this project needs, but publicity isn't one of them," says the slim woman in black, her hair pulled back like a ballerina's.
"Clients may not be interviewed because it intrudes on their privacy and dignity," she adds quickly.