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WVU expands service area to support pregnant women and raising families | WVU Today

In partnership with local organizations, the WVU-led West Virginia Healthy Start/Helping Appalachian Parents and Infants project will expand its reach to 11 counties, supporting communities with high infant mortality rates.
(WVU photo)

A West Virginia UniversityThe organization-led initiative is expanding its reach to 11 counties in the Mountain State, providing more low-income pregnant women and families with children with access to health care and life skills through the West Virginia Healthy Start/Help for Parents and Toddlers in Appalachia — HAPI — Project.

Working with local organizations, the program supports communities that have infant mortality rates at least 1.5 times the U.S. national average and high rates of other adverse maternal and child outcomes. The goal is to reduce these numbers by reducing preterm births and low birth rates and improving overall maternal and family health.

The HAPI project is managed by the Medical Faculty of the WVU Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences and that WVU Research OfficeA recent grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will continue to provide $1.1 million annually for the next five years to support Barbour, Harrison, Marion, Monongalia, Preston, Randolph and Upshur counties, with the addition of Doddridge, Hardy, Marshall and Wetzel counties.

For more than two decades, the program has partnered with community agencies and organizations to provide birth support and a variety of resources ranging from healthy solutions and preventive care to parenting advice, career planning and personal relationship goals.

More than 800 West Virginia women and families participate each year. After a baby is born, HAPI supports the mother, father, newborn, and siblings for 18 months.

“We are very excited about the opportunity to continue supporting families in West Virginia,” Penny Womeldorff, Director of the West Virginia Healthy Start/HAPI Project, said.

“We have spent 23 years building a network of providers and partners to meet the needs of pregnant and parenting families and are now able to expand our reach to additional counties that need us. We want to continue to grow and respond to the needs of our West Virginia families and contribute to the health and well-being of West Virginia as a whole.”

HAPI works hand-in-hand with and expands on Right From The Start, a federal program that provides case management and home visiting services to pregnant women, postpartum women, and infants up to one year of age who have Medicaid, CHIP, or maternity insurance.

“We partner with them to provide a much more comprehensive package of services to the families we serve,” Womeldorff said. “We use the same staff of nurses and social workers that provide both programs in our region. It’s a lot about case management and education around healthy behaviors during pregnancy. We deal with things like perinatal mood disorders and postnatal depression, anxiety and smoking cessation.”

For mothers who want to try breastfeeding, HAPI offers training and counseling from certified lactation consultants. Womeldorff said this aspect of the program has been successful, with breastfeeding rates increasing from 59.7% in 2017 to 76.6% in 2022.

In partnership with the WVU School of Dentistry, the program also emphasizes oral health by encouraging moms, dads and their children to visit the dentist. After an exam, each family member receives a Sonicare toothbrush.

“We educate about the impact of poor oral health on pregnancy, because there is a link between periodontal disease, low birth rates and preterm births,” said Womeldorff. “We are trying to improve birth outcomes by ensuring oral health for all people.”

In addition, a fatherhood coordinator is available to provide advice on parenting, career and relationship goals.

The success of the program will be measured not only by health and educational outcomes, but also by the impact it has on clients’ attitudes toward helping others.

“Over the years, some clients have come back and worked with us as social workers before going back to school to finish their degrees,” Womeldorff said. “One is now an obstetric nurse and another works for a government health program. Others have come back to volunteer or participate in community events.”

Dr. Rawan El-Amin, HAPI’s principal investigator, gained insight into the program while completing her internship for a master’s degree in public health at WVU before completing her medical school.

“HAPI is a great bridge between medical and social/community-based services,” said El-Amin. “This funding is critical to continue our efforts to raise awareness and coordinate care for important conditions during pregnancy and the postpartum period. We are grateful for the opportunity to continue to care for our families in West Virginia.”

Currently, Sadie Lobdell of Townsend, Delaware, a master’s student in social work, and Courtney Dillow of Mechanicsville, Virginia, a final-year student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social work, are completing their internships as Designated Care Coordinators and plan to continue working with the HAPI project during and after their training.

To raise awareness of prenatal and early childhood health, HAPI also hosts several community events. The largest of these, “Baby and Me Day,” is held each year at the Meadowbrook Mall in Bridgeport and includes vendor booths from WVU Medicine and various state agencies.

“It’s an opportunity for people to learn about pregnancy and parenthood and fill out a referral for our program,” Womeldorff said. “Our goal is to support our families and help them make sure they have everything they need during pregnancy, during the early years of parenthood and as they transition from Step A to Step C or D, whatever that means for them.”

The WV Healthy Start/HAPI project is funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration and the Healthy Start and Perinatal Services Division of the Maternal and Child Health Bureau and is integrated into the state-funded Right From The Start program.



MEDIA CONTACT: Linda Skidmore
Health Research Author
WVU Research Communication
[email protected]

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