Investing In the Village, Investing in People

Amita Wanar
By Amita Wanar

At the April Breastfeeding Coalition meeting, Lifting Up Local Leadership in Black Maternal Health, participants were asked what actions they were moved to take as a result of the meeting. Community Champion She-Tara Smith shared, “Vital Village invests people and that is something I want to do more.”

One way that Vital Village and community partners invest in Boston residents is through our Service Learning and Leadership Model where residents can gain knowledge and build skills in their fields of interest.

Vital Village Network’s Boston Breastfeeding Coalition aims to increase access to breastfeeding support in Boston by using the Service Learning and Leadership Model to uplift community members who are passionate about providing lactation support in their community. The pathway combines evidence-based lactation counselor trainings with volunteer opportunities in which community members provide free breastfeeding counseling, thus creating a deeply engaging and multifaceted educational experience.  

Since 2016, we have offered over 90 scholarships for community leaders to attend Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere (ROSE) Community Transformer trainings, Healthy Children’s Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC) trainings, and Childbirth and Postpartum Professional Association’s Certified Lactation Educator (CLE) trainings. For the last two years, Community Champions She-Tara Smith, Dominique Bellegarde, and Jenny Weaver co-facilitated and provided mentorship to the 18-scholar cohort on the last day of the ROSE training. All three were 2017 or 2018 ROSE graduates. This exemplifies the opportunities for local leaders to build their skills and then share their lived experience with others seeking the same pathway. The ROSE training, which was offered this past February, focuses on the foundations of peer counseling and identifies how peer support can improve racial disparities in breastfeeding. Miriam Guerrier (ROSE graduate ‘19) shared how the training transformed her patient interactions in her work at Boston Medical Center, “Now, if we see a pregnant mom, because we did the training, we are more aware and more confident to open up a conversation about breastfeeding.”

As a part of their scholarship commitment, ROSE graduates are now fulfilling 50 hours of volunteer service as peer scholars at 9 different breastfeeding support groups across Boston. During volunteerism, peer counselors put their new skills to practice as they gain deeper clinical knowledge and community perspective, all while giving back to their neighbors. Peer counselors are also invited to participate in monthly continuing education opportunities or “Scholar Support Nights” at Frugal Bookstore and reflect on their service-learning experience. Facilitating a support group after completing the ROSE training, constructively prepares counselors to succeed during more technical trainings like the Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC) course, which is known to be challenging for non-clinical providers.

A host of partner organizations collaborate to create service-learning pathways, drawing upon existing community resources and strengths. These service-learning opportunities would not be possible without partners like ROSE and Healthy Children Project, the sites that host the support groups, like the Mattapan Public Library and Boston Children’s Museum, Frugal Bookstore, the Boston Family Engagement Network, and many others. Community investment can take many different forms. For example, our partners at the South End Community Health Center recently offered paid per-diem positions to the peer counselors who have been co-facilitating the Baby Cafe as volunteers for the last year or more.

Looking forward to September 2019, the Breastfeeding Coalition plans to host the Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC) training once again and recent ROSE scholars have already expressed enthusiasm. After the CLC training, opportunities still exist for counselors to continue developing their skills. Many are looking to pursue the rigorous Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) credential, a field that is lacking in racial and economic diversity, and have formed a workgroup to determine how to address the systemic barriers to achieving this certification.  

The journey doesn’t have to end in September for counselors who aren’t seeking further credentials. Service-learning is designed to lay the foundation for lifelong personal growth: by combining theory and practice, and encouraging participation both as learners and as community members, service-learners are able to synthesize material in a meaningful, lasting way. This continued growth can be seen as counselors bring their skills and expertise to their peers in the Breastfeeding Coalition or counselors write and produce videos for The Daily Milk Blog. Building upon the initial investment of Vital Village, the peer counselors take collective responsibility of the Coalition, increasing the breadth of positive impact for children and families.