(Originally published on JNJ.com)
When Hurricane Irma—the strongest observed in the Atlantic Ocean in over a decade—touched down this past fall in the United States and the Caribbean, it mercifully spared much of the country of Haiti.
The bad news: Haiti is still rebuilding from the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, which ravaged the island in October 2016. When the storm hit, Haiti already had the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the Western Hemisphere—in 2016, nearly 25 babies died there each day for every 1,000 births. That's six times more deaths than the U.S. saw each day that year.
Since then, due to Matthew's destruction of numerous hospitals dedicated to women's health services, resources for expectant and new moms have deteriorated significantly. So this past fall, The Baby Box Co., Johnson & Johnson, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Ministry of Public Health and Population of Haiti joined forces to provide 2,500 baby boxes through the end of 2017 to mothers in areas hardest hit by the hurricane and other regions in Haiti where maternal health resources are especially limited.
The Promise of a Simple Cardboard Box
Why baby boxes? Even before Hurricane Matthew hit, many homes in Haiti lacked clean water, proper sanitation and reliable electricity—problems that have only gotten worse. These simple, durable cardboard boxes provide a safe place for newborns to sleep until they are able to pull themselves up. They also come stocked with infant care essentials, as well as health tools tailored to local needs, like insecticide-treated mosquito nets for use in areas where malaria is a concern.
Furthermore, there's evidence that baby box programs that integrate local health, education and social support lead to better infant and maternal wellness outcomes. In Finland, for instance, a program that enables every expecting woman to claim a free baby box once she receives prenatal care and parenting information from a healthcare provider has been credited with helping the country achieve one of the world's lowest infant mortality rates.
It was hearing about this Finnish program that inspired Jennifer Clary and Michelle Vick—best friends since childhood—to found The Baby Box Co. And their goal isn't just to distribute boxes: The company is dedicated to teaching parents about safe sleep and providing childcare information through Baby Box University, an online educational platform. The Baby Box Co. also furthers its mission to reach families globally by partnering with hospitals, government agencies and nonprofit organizations.
That's why "The Baby Box Co. is proud to support UNFPA's outstanding work for vulnerable populations around the world," Clary says. "This immediate baby box relief effort in Haiti is paving the way for other global initiatives, in collaboration with UNFPA."
The baby boxes distributed in Haiti were outfitted with a firm waterproof mattress and additional newborn necessities, including diapers, blankets, booties and bibs. Beyond offering these crucial creature comforts to new moms, the Haiti initiative came with an added component: Mothers received the boxes for free as an incentive for them to return to one of eight clinics for subsidized pre- and postnatal care in an effort to help reduce maternal and neonatal mortality rates in Haiti.
The cause of supporting women and babies is one that's long been near and dear to Johnson & Johnson, starting in the 1890s, when the company produced first-of-their-kind maternity kits to help skilled birth attendants ensure safe births.
"Since before Hurricane Matthew, Johnson & Johnson has partnered with UNFPA to strengthen healthcare for mothers during pregnancy and after delivery in countries ranging from Mexico to Zanzibar," explains, Global Director, Johnson & Johnson Global Community Impact. "Working with The Baby Box Co., we now have the opportunity to give Haitian mothers the education and essential supplies that any mother needs, especially in difficult circumstances."
Sweet Slumber for Babies—and Sweet Relief for Moms
As the boxes were distributed at a clinic in Marigot, in southeast Haiti, mothers waited patiently with babies in their arms, eager for a glimpse inside.
Magguy Brisson spoke confidently on behalf of the 20 moms in attendance: "I take the liberty to speak for all of us to recognize the importance of this box for the well-being of my baby girl. She is my second child, and I am relieved to not have to go through the burden of lacking a secure bed for her, as I did for my firstborn."
And it wasn't just mothers who were at the clinic that day. Dashka Mentor was there with her husband, Stephan Jean Baptiste, who proudly held his 3-week-old daughter, Darcy Jean Baptiste.
"We may be young, Stephan and I, but we are very much in love with one another," Mentor said. "We intend to spend our life together. Darcy will be overindulged, and the first step to her well-being is a decent bed for her to sleep in. The baby box is a true blessing."
Three weeks later, in follow-up visits to their homes in Marigot and the town of Jacmel, mothers who'd received baby boxes remained enthusiastic about their importance to their infants.
Jocelène Guillaume, for instance, explained how, in many Haitian households, mothers share their beds with their babies, believing it forges a stronger parent-child connection. Today, she now confidently uses her baby box as a safe place for her child to nap and play.
Mentor, too, was delighted to show off baby Darcy, happily nestled in her box.
"I am so grateful for this contribution," Mentor said. "It offers me a feeling of peace at night."