In rural Mississippi, Baby University is helping parents with ‘more than diapers’
It’s the day before spring graduation, and every seat in Clarksdale Baby University’s classroom is full. Pregnant women and young moms and their children gather at folding tables for a family-style dinner. Chelesa Presley stands at the head of the table, holding up a small whiteboard, and she’s focused as she draws a diagram of a uterus.
“No person should know your body better than you,” Presley told the class.
They all nod in agreement.
Most of Presley’s lessons center on having and caring for a baby, but for the final session of Baby U, she emphasized self-care and resilience — which included mental wellness and birth control. She passed around pamphlets of NuvaRings and IUDs and asked mothers frankly how they plan to prevent accidental pregnancy. She also answered questions about unsupportive family members and postpartum depression.
“We’re getting them to understand that you have to be healthy yourself to take care of your babies,” she said. “You got to maintain your own health.”
Baby University is a free, eight-week program in Clarksdale, Mississippi that teaches moms healthier ways to care for their babies, from birth until they’re three years old. Presley co-founded the community organization in 2014, then took over as director in 2018. She’s the sole instructor for the course and has seen more than 400 parents graduate from the program. She said the impact of having a safe place for parents to ask questions has had lasting effects.
“I have parents who are participants in this class, and they will come back and tell you it was life-altering, but it took a while,” Presley said. “It might have been child number two. Might have been child number three, or even child number four before, like, oh, my goodness. Ding, ding, ding.”
Clarksdale is in the Mississippi Delta, which is the poorest region in the state. Mississippi has the second-highest rate of teen pregnancy in the country, and in Coahoma County, where Baby University is, about half of the children live in poverty.
Data from The Commonwealth Fund shows that Mississippi’s health care infrastructure is the worst in the county, and in the Gulf States, Alabamaand Louisiana don’t fare any better. Alabama’s infant mortality rate is higher than the national average, and between 2018 and 2020, Louisiana’s maternal morbidity rate increased.
There is a hospitalthat provides maternal care in Clarksdale, but space is limited, and it’s costly. There aren’t a lot of resources for new families in the Delta, either, so Presley ends up filling as many gaps as she can.
She works as a certified community health worker, a lactation specialist and a doula. Often, she’ll offer depression screenings for mothers and newborn wellness checks.
But Presley’s help isn’t limited to just health and wellness. She also provides material needs, offering diapers, formula and clothing through the Diaper Bank of the Delta, which she also founded — as well as any other assistance someone might need.
“We got to the point where we were doing more than diapers,” she said. “We help people get their GED. We help people get their driver's licenses. We help people maintain housing and stop bouncing from place to place. We help people get out of abusive situations. We help people who were living in their cars get out of their cars.”
Ultimately, she’s trying to give new parents the tools to better care for their children, which Takieria Holmes said made a difference for her emotionally.
Holmes has two young children and is expecting her third soon. She said since taking Presley’s class, she’s developed better control of her anger and prioritizes her mental health. Having Baby U and Presley has changed how she approached this pregnancy.
“Most of the stuff that she taught in the class, I didn't know before my two, like being induced,” Holmes said. “I was induced with my son. I didn’t know we could have waited. Asking questions - that’s very important.”
Bianca Zaharescu is the CEO of Spring Initiative – a nonprofit organization that supports Baby U — but she’s also a first-time mom. She said she enrolled in the spring class to get herself up to speed on what having a baby is really like.
Spring Initiative, where she works, runs after-school programming, so she’s not unfamiliar with children, but she said it’s different to have a baby of her own.
“It’s been so meaningful and concretely helpful to really be thinking like, ‘OK. I can do this and it's not going to be perfect,’” Zaharescu said. “All mothers are going through the same thing, right?”
She points to the circumstances that mothers in rural communities like Clarksdale face that can be difficult to navigate all at once.
“I think there's so many things that are so hard anyway about becoming a parent or being a parent, and that is without then the layers of systemic obstacles that keep not being removed,” she said. “I think it is so easy to feel isolated, and I think it is so important for people to have a way to plug in and get concrete support.”
Presley said that as long as she has parents who need her help, she’ll continue to support them — even once they graduate from her course. Often, parents will return to Baby U for the community, and some even volunteer to cook meals and mentor mothers.
For her, the circumstances outside of the classroom influence the lessons she teaches each week, in the hopes that it will improve her students’ futures as parents.
“I want to make sure that you are able to make some of the best decisions you can for that child,” Presley said. “ Even though we sometimes don't make good decisions, but we want to make sure that we make the best decisions as possible.”
This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public Broadcasting, WBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR. Support for reproductive health coverage comes from The Commonwealth Fund.