MANSFIELD - A universal initiative designed to combat infant mortality rates has officially launched in Richland County.
On Friday, the Mansfield Area Y and Richland Public Health launched a baby box program in partnership with Baby Box University, a branch of The Baby Box Company based in California. The program is available to new and expecting parents of all socioeconomic levels, who can receive a free baby box by completing online parenting education.
Richland Public Health Commissioner Martin Tremmel said baby boxes will serve as yet another tool in the county's fight against infant mortality.
"It's a clear example of our commitment to improving our community's infant mortality rate, as well as the leadership in this particular area of Ohio," Tremmel said.
Other agencies supporting the baby box initiative in Richland County include the Mansfield-Richland County Public Library 211 service, Avita Health Systems, OhioHealth Mansfield and Shelby Hospitals, the Community Health Access Project, Richland Pregnancy Services, the Richland County Foundation, and Third Street Family Health Services.
To receive a free baby box, local parents start by registering for free at babyboxuniversity.com as an Ohio resident. After watching a 10- to 15-minute Ohio-specific video syllabus and taking a short quiz, parents then receive a certificate of completion and can select local pick-up or direct delivery of a baby box.
On Friday, the Mansfield Area Y provided iPads for parents to complete the Baby Box University education and receive a baby box in person. Cristen Gilbert, CEO of the Y, said at least 10 individuals had already completed the education and would be receiving a box over the next few days.
"It's such an honor to be part of an initiative that saves lives," Gilbert said. "This is a fabulous initiative for our community, and it's the least we can do to participate."
In 2016, the infant mortality rate for Richland County was 10.4, which equals 12 infant deaths out of 1,154 births. In comparison, the infant mortality rate for the entire state of Ohio in 2016 was 7.1.
Baby boxes are not the county's first attempt at reducing infant mortality rates. In 2014, Richland Public Health led a community and countywide initiative on infant mortality that led to the creation of an infant mortality "task force" involving many health organizations, county agencies and nonprofits.
One initiative from the task force was the creation of a common and consistent safe sleep message used across Richland County and the state of Ohio, the ABC's of safe sleep: alone, on the back, and in a crib.
"But you can see that with the data, additional tools in the toolbox are needed," Tremmel said. "We are not moving this needle as far as we would like; the current resources may not be enough, or the target and approaches need to be improved so we can decrease our rates on infant mortality."
The idea of baby boxes, Tremmel said, came from a solutions journalism piece in Richland Source called "Healing Hope: Saving babies means thinking inside the box." Tremmel said the series brought the community to terms with a significant and real problem.
"What you see behind me is a result of that concept," Tremmel said, referencing the wall of baby boxes behind him. "It went from a story, to a discussion, to a critique, to some action items where many of us in the room have adopted and are getting behind the baby box concept."
Jay Allred, publisher of Richland Source, stated the publication was happy to simply start the ball rolling when it came to bringing baby boxes to Richland County.
"We were just doing the work journalists are supposed to do, which is tell stories about a community and give that community the opportunity to either come together to solve a problem, or run away from it," Allred said.
"Our role in this was to create a platform where a community could see a different way, and solve a problem that had vexed that community for decades."
Richland County's baby box launch on Friday was part of a statewide baby box initiative in partnership with The Baby Box Company. University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's hospital in Cleveland hosted the statewide launch on Friday morning.
Kevin Haberer, co-founder of The Baby Box Company, was in Richland County on Friday afternoon to support the local launch.
"We consider ourselves a global grassroots organization, so the more groups we have on a localized level, the better it works for the people using the platform and the boxes," Haberer said.
The use of baby boxes paired with parenting education in Finland has been credited with helping Finland achieve the world's lowest infant mortality rates, inspiring the creation of The Baby Box Company. Haberer said Ohio in particular has been a major focus for the company.
"Unfortunately Ohio is on the higher end for infant mortality, so we feel like it's an important state in the sense that it's in the middle of the country and represents all walks of life," he said. "We can really see how having the education here works in a more localized and homogenized community."
The ultimate goal of the baby box program in Richland County is to see the county's infant mortality rates improve, said Tremmel.
"Just assuming that with interventions and programs like this we can make just one difference, we're going to make a dramatic change in our rate," he said. "We're committed to seeing that the babies in our county live to and beyond their first birthday."