Shortly after Jasmine Sealy-Norvin, 28, learned she was pregnant with her second child, she gathered her courage, her 4-year-old son and whatever the two of them could physically carry — and they escaped.
Home was no longer a sanctuary due to domestic violence. When she made the difficult decision to go, Sealy-Norvin was unsure she and her children would find refuge, but she knew their lives depended on them leaving.
They landed in a mice-infested shelter and were assigned to a room on the third floor without elevator access. It was an especially difficult placement for Sealy-Norvin, who is legally blind with some residual vision. Her pleas for a new room went unanswered. About four months into her pregnancy, she suffered multiple falls going up and down the building’s stairs.
Although she felt vulnerable and alone, the mother-to-be persevered. She held down two part-time jobs and continued pursuing her master’s degree in mental health counseling. But try as she might, she couldn’t outrun the overlapping medical, emotional and financial challenges that come with homelessness, single parenting and a high-risk pregnancy.
“When you don’t know where you’re going to be able to rest your head, your first thought is not about scheduling your next prenatal appointment,” Sealy-Norvin said.
Still, more than anything, she wanted to ensure her children would be safe and healthy. During an outpatient visit at the Brigham, she shared her concerns with a social worker, who referred her to a program called Bridges to Moms. Operated in partnership with a local nonprofit, Health Care Without Walls (HCWW), the program connects homeless expectant mothers with a breadth of services during pregnancy and through the first year of their child’s life.
‘A Shocking Revelation’
Founded in 2016 by Roseanna Means, MD, of the Division of Women’s Health, Bridges to Moms provides free prenatal, peripartum and postpartum care while seeking to address the unique needs of homeless women during and after pregnancy. To date, it has served 120 patients, many of whom are referred to the program by their Brigham care providers.
“For most patients who have a baby, being discharged from the hospital is a happy moment. They take you down to the front door, and usually you have a loved one waiting there with a car to bring you home. Someone stops by with a casserole. Everyone wants to help you out,” Means said. “But we saw that our homeless patients were getting in a cab and going directly to a government housing office to ask for shelter for themselves and their newborns. It was just a shocking revelation.”
In addition to its clinical work, Bridges to Moms focuses on addressing social determinants that make it difficult for homeless women and their babies to access care.
For example, the program provides patients with taxi vouchers for all their medical appointments; similarly, mothers whose babies are hospitalized in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) receive free transportation to and from the Brigham each day until their infant is discharged so that they can bond with their newborn.
In addition, moms receive vouchers to enjoy a meal at the Garden Café whenever they’re here for an appointment or visit. For many women, it might be the only meal they eat that day, Means said.
Providers and staff also help patients navigate public assistance programs for daycare, food, clothing and housing. Sealy-Norvin recalled how the Bridges to Moms team advocated for her placement in a cleaner shelter with appropriate accommodations for her medical needs as one of many examples of how the program has helped her overcome hardship.
Today, Sealy-Norvin and her two sons, now 5 years old and 7 months old, continue to live in a shelter. Even so, she is filled with hope for the future. In addition to work and graduate school, she is juggling an internship and pursuing an early-childhood education certification.
“My kids give me strength. They gave me the strength to leave. They give me the strength to go on. I just want a better life for them and to be a role model,” she said. “Having Bridges to Moms in my corner, I know that I have people supporting me so that I keep pushing forward.”
Bridges to Moms also works closely with patients to set them up for future success, connecting them with career development and job training opportunities. On April 9, the program hosted a four-hour Career Day event in the Hale Building for Transformative Medicine. Volunteers from BNY Mellon and Deloitte provided free résumé counseling, job interview training and related services. The event — spearheaded by HCWW volunteer Elizabeth Decker — also featured representatives from Found in Translation, a local nonprofit that assists bilingual, low-income women with medical-interpreter certification training and job placement in the field.
Wendy Figueroa, 33, a mother of five who was referred to the program during her most recent pregnancy, attended the event to polish her interviewing and personal finance skills. Figueroa, a native Spanish speaker, learned about Found in Translation through Bridges to Moms and recently underwent her second round of interviews for entry to the program — hoping to become a medical interpreter and, one day, a nurse.
“If I can learn more, I’m going to do it, and thanks to Bridges to Moms, I’m meeting a lot of people who can help me in different ways,” said Figueroa, who currently lives in a shelter.
Means said she is continually in awe of her patients’ unstoppable drive to make life better for their families.
“These women are warriors,” Means said. “We see so many instances of bravery and resilience. I don’t know that I could last a day in their shoes.”