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Baby-friendly Grand Rapids: A designation, a lifestyle, and a goal for the future


According to US News and World Report, young families are choosing Grand Rapids as the place to live: “Families make up a big chunk of the region's population. Nearly a third of Grand Rapids' households have children under the age of 18.” With organizations like the Grand Rapids Children's Museum and the John Ball Zoo geared toward little ones, and Spectrum Butterworth Hospital's baby-friendly designation, GR is increasingly becoming a great place to raise a family.
According to US News and World Report, young families are choosing Grand Rapids as the place to live: “Families make up a big chunk of the region's population. Nearly a third of Grand Rapids' households have children under the age of 18.”
Amber and Mike Bos moved to Grand Rapids from Chicago in 2015, when they decided to get married and start a family. Better jobs and lower rents played a big part in their decision, as both had hefty college debts to pay off.

“In Chicago, we saw family members buy housing with high property cost and no backyards. So, the night before we got married, we moved here,” Amber Bos says. “We found jobs with health insurance accounts and 401-Ks. In Chicago, jobs are so competitive that we weren’t even offered those kinds of benefits.”

They chose an affordable second-story apartment in a house on the northeast side. Avid bikers and walkers, they like being in a neighborhood that is walking distance from shops and restaurants and close to the bus line. Before their daughter, Clara, was born in 2016, Bos biked daily to her job in Grandville. Clara’s arrival made Bos appreciate her new hometown even more.

“There are a lot more things we can do. I love the parks. We take the bus a lot and I like that I can walk to my doctor’s appointments,” she says. “At Martha’s Vineyard, they know Clara so well. We can walk over there get a fresh baguette. We also like going to Terra for brunch; they actually have kids dishes and silverware so I don’t have to share my food with her.”

Other favorite family activities include Thursday admission-free nights at the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, taking dips at the downtown YMCA, morning story times at Barnes & Noble, and treks to Clara’s favorite outdoor destination, Wilcox Park. “We love that park,” Bos says. “We can walk and play under the big trees, play on the splash pad—and you can rent the shelter for birthday parties.”

After going to concert at Frederik Meijer Gardens without Clara, Bos has decided, next time, she will bring her along. “There were so many kids at the concert and wide open grass for them to run around. You can rent chairs, so if you’re there with kids and strollers, you don’t have to carry your own chairs, too. That makes it easier.”

Another reason the Bos family chose Grand Rapids: it’s only an hour’s drive to wild forests and rivers. Mike hunts and fishes to supplement the family’s food budget. They both like to forage mushrooms and other edibles from the woods. Clara is already a veteran primitive camper.

“Grand Rapids has the big city culture yet we can drive an hour out to hunt and harvest mushrooms, deer, rabbit, and fish. We fished in big cities but you can’t eat the fish,” Bos says. “As a kid in Chicago, I never learned to swim. Everybody here knows how to swim. Everybody’s in the water.”

When Clara was born at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, Bos discovered another reason to appreciate where she lived. Like many first time moms, she had challenges breastfeeding. Spectrum’s breastfeeding support groups helped her and Clara to become a successful breastfeeding couple. “One of the groups was right down the street from me,” she says. “Being in that group with 20 other moms gave me more confidence.”

Spectrum Butterworth’s Baby-friendly designation

Staff at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital agree that Grand Rapids is baby-friendly, especially since Baby-Friendly USA honored the facility with its Baby-Friendly designation. Launched by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 1991, the global Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative encourages and recognizes hospitals and birthing centers that offer an optimal level of care for infant breastfeeding and mother/baby bonding. Spectrum Butterworth is the only hospital in Grand Rapids that has received the designation.

“We are very focused on breastfeeding and what kinds of practices the hospital can do to improve that for mom and baby,” says Christina Pries, MSN, RN, CBC, improvement specialist for Women’s and Infant Services. “While we honor mom’s choice, we have changed hospital practices to support those who want to breastfeed. Teaching them how to breastfeed during the first few days is so integral.”

In addition to offering three, free weekly Breastfeeding Support Groups, Spectrum’s free MedNow Breastfeeding Support video visits are available to anyone who calls.

Spectrum’s Maternal Infant Health Program also specifically assists parents and babies with income challenges that qualify them for Medicaid. The program includes home visits and telephone calls throughout pregnancy and during the baby’s first year. Parents are helped with finding prenatal and well-child care, breastfeeding support, parenting insights, general wellness strategies and finding resources such as baby supplies, transportation, and food.

The medical community, Kent County Health Department, and other local advocates for women’s health are working hard to increase the number of moms choosing to breastfeed. However, local culture needs to catch up. While a 2016 WOTV report listed only four breastfeeding-friendly destinations—Kent District Libraries, Rivertown and Tanger malls, and the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum—Michigan law does give moms the right to breastfeed anywhere. The Grand Rapids area has a long way to go before moms feel supported in breastfeeding their babies in public. Bos has experienced dirty looks from staff and patrons at local restaurants. Other moms report nasty comments from retail and venue staff (even children’s venues) and lack of time and facilities for pumping milk or breastfeeding on the job.

“The Affordable Care Act requires employers to provide pumping space that’s not the bathroom and it’s harder for breastfeeding employees to get fired,” says Barb Hawkins-Palmer, executive director of Healthy Kent Breastfeeding Coalition, a program of the Kent County Health Department. “We still need more baby-friendly workplaces.”

“[It's] a rarity that a child needs to leave Grand Rapids for any medical care.”

According to Dr. Bill Bush, the Baby-Friendly designation only begins to describe how Grand Rapids’ medical community takes care of its youngest patients. Spectrum Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital is another baby-friendly facet for the greater Grand Rapids community. The 8,000 babies born each year at Spectrum Butterworth Campus are right next door to one of the largest neonatal units in the country (among the top ten).

“We have a lot of very sick babies receiving excellent care close to home,” says Bush, pediatrician-in-chief, Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “We have more than 250 physicians and providers that have specialties in almost all fields within children’s care. It’s a rarity that a child needs to leave Grand Rapids for any medical care. Families come in from across the state and country and even from across the world.”

Bush notes that having quality medical care close to home relieves some of the stress that families with sick children endure. During treatment or hospitalizations, parents can still sleep in their own beds, have fewer issues with employers, enjoy the support of local family and friends, and avoid navigating an unfamiliar city.

“Stress impacts our health. We clearly see that in adults and, as pediatricians, stress is a clear cause of many children’s illnesses,” Bush says. “We are very blessed to have not only specialists at the hospital but also many very well trained providers throughout our community.”

Bush has maintained a pediatric practice in Forest Hills for more than 20 years. He notes that medical services offered through Cherry Health, Family Promise, Priority Health, and others provide excellent medical resources for families experiencing income challenges or homelessness.

“Priority Health has thousands of kids enrolled in an insurance program similar to what employers buy for us,” he says. “Another (Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital) program, Secchia CarePartners, works with medically complex children, seeing multiple specialists, regardless of insurance and ability to pay. These families are under extreme stress so we help them navigate the system. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, these programs are there for you.”

Bush also commends the Grand Rapids area as being baby- and family-friendly from experience. He and his wife chose to raise their own children here. “We have raised our children and now our grandchildren in the area. All of them are still here, either in school or working,” he says. “We both have had opportunity to go work other places but wouldn't leave this area. I came from Pennsylvania but Grand Rapids is my forever home.”

Baby-friendly: The black and white

Despite the opportunities for young families in Grand Rapids, the community at-large has work to do. “We still see disparities even in a community that has so many wonderful things to offer families,” says Hawkins-Palmer.

A 24/7 Wall St. report ranked Grand Rapids-Wyoming the 5th Worst City for Black Americans. The typical black household in Grand Rapids earns less than half of the typical white household earns. Black residents in Grand Rapids live in poverty at almost four times the rate of whites. More than 35,800 children living in Kent County, live in poverty.

“That's 23 percent of all children in the county, and represents a 40-percent increase over a six-year span,” she says. ”Decades of gaps in income, employment, and education have contributed to decades of health disparities.”

As of 2017, the infant mortality rate for African American babies born in Kent County is twice that of white babies. Thanks to programs like Healthy Kent, Family Futures, and Strong Beginnings, the number has come down. In 2001, five times as many black babies died during their first year of life. However, the numbers remain the same even when mothers have attained higher education, live on ample incomes, and are part of stable, two-parent homes. This brings the vicious impact of institutional racism to its true light.

“The toughest issues are related to racism, class oppression, gender, and race discrimination. Policies in our country were built on white privilege and those remain today,” Hawkins-Palmer says. “Let’s not only help women understand breastfeeding, eating well, and healthy pregnancy. We have to go upstream and work on our policy issues.”

In addition, Hawkins-Palmer noted that the current administration's attack on immigrants has instilled fear in Latinx residents. Latinx mothers may be afraid to seek needed health care for themselves and their children.

Hawkins-Palmer does appreciate opportunities that the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, Meijer Gardens, Grand Rapids Symphony, and other organizations offer to families with income challenges. But she notes that lack of transportation and parking costs can make even free opportunities inaccessible to many.

“The Whitecaps is a great family venue but there is no busing there. If you drive your car, you have to pay for parking,” she says. “Finding (low-cost and no-cost) opportunities takes maneuvering and knowledge. Our program tries to make those things available through churches, nonprofits, and social services.”

Other Healthy Kent programs addressing these disparities include a joint venture with Calvin College nursing students that empowers young women in inner city neighborhoods with basic women’s health information. Offered at no cost to all families giving birth in Kent County, Family Futures’ Healthy Families program matches parents of infants up to three months of age with an experienced, caring family support worker who visits parents at home and connects them with resources for the whole family.

“From the outside, Grand Rapids is awesome, the fastest growing city with all kinds of accomplishments but oftentimes it’s on the backs of people. Their apartments are sold or rents go up,” Hawkins-Palmer says. “Grand Rapids is a great place. It feels like a small town with a lot going on. We have to take note however. Who is it for? Who is benefiting?”

Originally from Detroit, Marley Griffin and her husband, Will Griffin, are expecting their fourth baby. When asked if being African American has made it more difficult to parent their children, Marley answers, “It has. It has.”

A full-time entrepreneur, her business Beauty of Tziyon, specializes in holistic beauty and natural hair styling. Because the couple cannot afford good childcare even with their combined incomes, Will works third shift so he can care for the children when Marley is working. She wishes Grand Rapids had income-based childcare for families with working parents.

“African Americans are paid less,” she notes. “We cannot afford childcare and that’s difficult for our relationship. Will sleeps a little bit and then he watches the children all day long. He and I are not able to connect. We get home and we’re tired. Every single day. I feel like it’s me and my husband against the world.”

Griffin also wishes that story times at the local library branch featured books with more characters of color. “When we’re sitting in the circle reading, I’d like to see stories with brown faces, more multicultural books that show the beauty of everyone. Representation,” she says. “I’d like to have the babies see something outside themselves that looks like them.”

Her son No-ach is six-years-old, daughter Na-omi is five, and son, Heru is nearly two. The Griffins have birthed all of their babies at home with midwife, Yolanda Visser. They plan to do the same with the next, a second daughter. They are thankful that Grand Rapids offers alternatives for birthing families.

“I’ve had a remarkable experience every time with the support of my midwife and doula,” Marley Griffin says. “It’s awesome to know about alternative natural birthing options that gave me more freedom over my process of birth, which is sacred to me. Home birth has taught me that I can get through anything with patience and support.”

The young family also enjoys Grand Rapids’ public parks, especially those that have been recently renovated with splash pads. They live in the Southtown neighborhood near Hall Street and Madison Avenue. “Grand Rapids is a really creative town, a big little city, laid back,” Griffin says. “It is a nice place to raise a family. It’s a little conservative but has a good balance. That’s good for children to see. On our block, our kids see brown, black, and white kids.”

Both of the Griffins work hard to make ends meet. Marley left her corporate position because policies made it impossible for her to continue breastfeeding.

“No mother wants to pump milk in a bathroom stall, car, the supervisor’s office or a break room with no privacy and sanitation. When we don’t have those facilities, that can stress us out and that stress discourages us from breastfeeding,” she says. “If we have a comfortable, serene, peaceful, private, sanitary place where we can relax and produce our milk, we’ll have a more productive day at work, too.”

People like Hawkins-Palmer, agencies like The Micah Center, and organizations like Partners for a Racism-Free Community are working hard to dismantle institutional racism in Grand Rapids. Hawkins-Palmer has this parting advice for making Grand Rapids baby-friendly for all of its little ones.

“Learn the history, how whiteness was created. Expose your children to different ethnic festivals, to different populations. Learn about the history of indigenous people, lead with love and understanding, and recognize that not everybody is like everybody else —and that’s the beauty.”

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Photography by Kristina Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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