The ranking was alarming. Upon learning that Fort Worth led the state of Texas in infant mortality rate, Becky Biser, director of leadership development for the Tarrant Baptist Association, decided to do something about it.
“We were No. 1 in Texas, had the most babies dying?” said Biser, recalling that moment in early 2018. “Not on our watch.”
The result was the Infant Safe Sleep program. More than four years and 2,200 travel cribs later, Biser is ecstatic about the program’s growing impact.
Funded in part by gifts from the Mary Hill Davis Offering for Texas Missions, the program has expanded into a collaboration of Tarrant Baptist Association with several churches and more than 40 different agencies across Tarrant County, including Cook Children’s Hospital. Along with the distribution of travel cribs – commonly known as pack-and-plays – it provides safety training for parents.
The ministry was born out of Biser’s decision to connect with and care for area civic leaders. Years ago, she began reaching out with monthly notes of encouragement, letting them know she was praying for them.
“The Lord gave me a vision and had me start writing community leaders,” said Biser, a member of University Baptist in Fort Worth. “He had chosen them, and He wanted me to help them hear Him.”
From one of these new relationships came the seeds of a new ministry. Biser felt prompted by the Lord to ask questions of various leaders, including: “What’s the biggest giant you face? What’s one thing the church community could do to help you?”
The responses included a litany of social issues. But when Dyann Daley, who was at the time the executive director of the Cook Children’s Center for Prevention of Child Maltreatment, shared the results of a study of infant mortality, Biser was stunned. Tarrant County’s rate of 7.2 deaths for every 1,000 births was the highest in the state for counties with more than 10,000 live births; the state average was 5.8. In some zip codes, the rate was 1.5 times the national rate.
“Whoa, we have to get to work in there,” Biser recalled thinking. “That was the first thing that got me. We should be better educating and taking care of children and families in Tarrant County than that.”
Biser hopes to see pack-and-plays become as ubiquitous and as universally used as car seats. Each pack-and-play costs $43-65. The ministry expects to distribute approximately 500 pack-and-plays in 2022.
“The Mary Hill Davis Offering was the kickstart of the Safe Sleep program in the beginning,” Biser said. “Having the funds and the partnership helped us gain traction to get this resource off the ground to save the lives of infants. The continued yearly support helps us continue to provide pack-and-plays and to add more agencies in different neighborhoods in the county.”
When she asked how Tarrant Baptists could best help lower the infant mortality rate, the answer was simple. The leading cause of injury-related death for infants, she learned, was suffocation – often while sleeping in the same bed with siblings or parents. Give babies their own space to sleep, and the risk of suffocation decreased.
When after further consultation, Biser determined that travel cribs, compact and portable, might be a simple but effective solution, Tarrant Baptist Association made an initial purchase. The first pack-and-plays cost around $50 each, and were fueled in part by funds from the Texas Baptist Hunger Offering.
Biser put the word out with children’s ministers at several churches and began working with various agencies in Tarrant County: hospitals, police and fire departments, churches, social services, and more. As word got out, requests for pack-and-plays continued to grow, and the program expanded into education, as well, all with the goal of helping parents better care for their infants.
Biser shared stories of success, like the father who asked for and received two pack-and-plays. In training, he learned his infant twins were not safe sleeping in the same bed as their parents – and also, that they would be safest if they each had their own space.
Biser takes her motivation from Isaiah 61, believing that the church should work to repair ruined and devastated communities.
“This is something that’s broken,” she said. “We’ve got babies dying that really could have been saved if they just had information and a place to have their baby sleep. Anything that we can do for systemic change to make our cities healthier, that’s what we should do.
“It’s an honor that the Lord allows us to do it.”
The Mary Hill Davis Offering supports missions and ministries across Texas. For more information, go to iamtexasmissions.org.