Love can go a long way toward helping a baby thrive, but love can’t buy diapers or formula or a crib to sleep in.
For that, there is AHEART, a small nonprofit group in Atlantic City dedicated to helping at-risk babies and toddlers by providing their caregivers with formula, diapers, baby clothes and furniture.
Tucked into a tiny shop in Gordon’s Alley and supported by the Reliance Medical Group’s Reliance Foundation, AHEART intentionally looks like a baby boutique.
“I wanted it to be someplace I would want to come to if I needed help,” CEO and founder Robbin Bell, of Atlantic City, said.
AHEART stands for All Hearts Educating, Advocating, Restoring, Transforming. Bell started the organization in 2008 after working as a court-appointed special advocate for Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties, where she saw children abused and neglected, and watched families struggle to stay together. AHEART works with doctors, hospitals and social service agencies to give new mothers the tools they need to provide for their children.
“You would go into court and hear these terrible stories,” said the mother of two daughter adopted through foster care. “And there weren’t many organizations geared to helping infants.”
The need is especially great in southern New Jersey. The 2012 Kids Count profiles rank Atlantic and Cumberland as the two worst counties for children. Twenty percent of children in Atlantic County live in poverty. More than 60 percent of families spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, leaving little left over for diapers.
Nine percent of babies were born to mothers ages 10-19 in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, and some of those mothers have no family support system to help them.
Tysheba Salisbury, 19, just had her second child, Vashawn Boyd, two months ago. The staff at AHEART cuddled him on Wednesday while his brother, Treyvon Hill, 2, eyed the toys in the boutique, zeroing in on a car and a large red ball.
Salisbury, a native of Delaware, was referred to AHEART through Covenant House in Atlantic City, an agency that assists homeless teens.
“They helped me the same day,” she said. “I got diapers and wipes. They’ve been a blessing ever since.”
Bell said while other agencies offer health-care services, they don’t provide the physical items mothers need. The group keeps a shelf of so-called BURP, or “Baby Urgent Response Program” bags, that include a supply of baby essentials that can be immediately delivered to hospitals, police or social service workers.
Suzanne Walter, director of operations for the South Jersey Perinatal Cooperative said they do in-home visitations to help new mothers learn to care for their babies and make sure they are developing properly. The group has a site in Atlantic City and runs state-supported Healthy Families and Early Intervention programs.
“AHEART has been a big boon to our families,” Walter said.
Bell said AHEART helps about 150 babies a month, most from Atlantic City and county, but also surrounding areas. That number has grown since Hurricane Sandy, which displaced many families who lost what little they did have.
“We are pushing to keep up with the demand,” Bell said.
The upstairs conference room, where they do parenting workshops, houses donated diapers. A group of about 11 volunteers, including Bell’s daughter, Zinia Hargrove, of Atlantic City, work daily to help local families.
Joy Butler, of Landisville, and friend Earl Beiermeistier Jr. have been taking food and baby items to families still living in motels. Butler started volunteering at the storm shelters in Buena Vista Township, heard about AHEART there, and has just kept helping.
Bell began AHEART by hosting baby showers where participants were asked to bring an item for a baby.
“For a year, I just collected stuff from the showers,” she said.
She first opened in space at Cape Bank in 2009 but got so busy that in April of this year moved to the group’s current location in Gordon’s Alley. Clayton Storage donated space to store furniture, and several area churches and sororities provide fundraising support and donations.
Dr. Jon Regis, president of Reliance Medical Group, said the Reliance Foundation is an offshoot of the community work it was already doing. The group has 13 offices in Atlantic County, and set up and ran emergency clinics in Atlantic City during and after Hurricane Sandy. He said they have used Bell as a resource for under-insured mothers, and are happy to give her some financial and administrative support.
“AHEART is just one example of what we plan to do in the community,” he said.
Its next event is targeting families still struggling to recover from Hurricane Sandy. The Reliance Foundation and AHEART will hold Rattle the Holidays with AHEART by providing emergency supplies to families with infants and young children up to age 2 in Atlantic and surrounding counties.
Contact Diane D'Amico: