ATLANTIC CITY — Mothers with their babies, children, parents, partners and friends sat at round tables adorned with pink and blue balloons as they waited to hear their raffle tickets called to win onesies, feeding supplies, car seats, strollers and other necessities for newborn babies.

The free community baby shower, put on by Southern Jersey Family Medical Centers and held Thursday at the All Wars Memorial Building, gave families living in and near the city a chance to access maternal and infant health services, support and education they may have otherwise lacked.

Organizers from Southern Jersey Family, a health network with locations in Atlantic, Burlington and Salem counties, said they were focused on families of color and increasing awareness of racial disparities in infant and maternal deaths.

“There are many factors, but one cannot ignore the role racism plays in these disparities,” said Linda Flake, president and CEO of Southern Jersey Family. “Societal stressors that are a part of life for an African-American woman have a detrimental impact on their lives and the lives of their infants.”

Infant mortality in New Jersey for black babies, at 9.7 per 1,000 live births, is more than three times the rate among white babies, state data show.

In some areas of the state, like Atlantic City, that rate is even higher at about 20 black infant deaths per 1,000 live births during the most recent five-year period.

About 40 families and representatives from 15 state and local organizations ate lunch, played baby shower games and participated in educational workshops as the day went on.

Destiny Wood, director of women’s health services and patient engagement, said although medical advancements have tremendously improved birth outcomes across the board, the disparity in infant and maternal deaths among white and black families has grown.

“I was a labor and delivery nurse for 10 years, and I myself am a mother, so I’ve been on both sides,” she said. “It may be hard to admit, but racism has a lot to do with it. It’s the kind of institutionalized racism, the biases, that affect families, and we need to advocate as black women.”

Flake said early and consistent prenatal care is crucial to decreasing infant mortality rates in Atlantic County, as well as having postpartum care.

In addition to events like the free baby showers, Wood said the provider network will soon launch its own pilot doula, or birth coach, program to focus on mothers and families of color. State Department of Health officials announced earlier this year they also were launching a pilot doula program with $4.7 million and six state community-based organizations.

Contact: 609-272-7022 NLeonard@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressNLeonard

Previously interned and reported for Boston.com, The Asbury Park Press, The Boston Globe

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