“This one right here — she is what keeps me going,” says Anameidy Roa Martinez (right) of her daughter, Mila (left), held by Donicely Zapata (center), a community health worker with the Brigham’s Bridges to Moms program, which has supported Roa Martinez as she has worked to overcome housing insecurity.

Anameidy Roa Martinez, 29, was seven months into her pregnancy when she developed pelvic pain so severe that it began to interfere with her job as a daycare teacher.

“I couldn’t walk, run or pick up the kids. I couldn’t do anything. It was painful to even take a walk outside,” she remembered. “I loved working with kids, but at the same time it was hurting me.”

She left her job and applied for unemployment benefits.

Roa Martinez was terrified. She lived alone and money was already tight. As she fell further behind on rent, and her due date got closer, she found herself in a situation she never imagined: on the verge of losing her housing.

“It’s the first time I’m dealing with something like this — not knowing how I’m going to pay the next month, what’s going to happen with the amount that I owe now, if I can get a job,” she said. “I have to have a roof over my head not only for myself but also my daughter. That’s the most stressful thing I’ve been going through.”

During one of her prenatal visits at the Brigham, she disclosed her situation to a social worker, who immediately referred her to a program called Bridges to Moms.

Founded in 2016 by Roseanna Means, MD, of the Division of Women’s Health, Bridges to Moms works to address gaps in five social determinants of health — housing, transportation, food security, personal safety and community resources — facing women who are pregnant and experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness.

“I volunteered as soon as I heard about this event,” says neonatologist Silvia Patrizi (right), pictured with Roseanna Means (left) at Bridges to Moms’ Career Day event.

The need has only grown as the state grapples with a worsening housing crisis and other economic factors such as inflation place mounting pressure on families, Means said.

“These women come to us at the lowest point in their lives. Meanwhile, they’re going to have a baby. They’re really scared. They don’t have any money. They’re isolated. They don’t have a moms group. They may not have a supportive partner, friends or their own mom in their lives,” Means said. “Yet these women are determined to make a better life for their kids. They are just amazing.”

Across the Continuum

Participants are paired with one of the program’s three bilingual community health workers — William Diaz, Edual Infante and Donicely Zapata — who serve as advocates and navigators to help patients access Mass General Brigham services and community-based resources, including assistance programs for daycare, food, clothing and housing.

More than 90 percent of participants are women of color, who are at disproportionate risk for pregnancy-related complications and death. To date, there have been no maternal deaths among women enrolled in Bridges to Moms.

“Helping people is my passion,” Infante said. “When you get to improve someone’s living condition, it’s a great satisfaction. I am also always learning more and more about the system as I work with our clients, and that knowledge is really important. Many of the cases are similar, so we can use our experience to help more people.”

Patients in the program receive support during the prenatal, peripartum and postpartum periods through the baby’s first birthday to monitor their health needs and address any systemic or institutional barriers that may affect the mother and her child.

For example, the program provides patients with transportation 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 they can bond with their newborn.

From left: Lydia Marshall and Judah Soray volunteer at the Bridges to Moms Career Day event.

In addition, moms receive vouchers to enjoy a meal at the Garden Café whenever they’re here for an appointment or visit. “I can’t tell you the number of times they tell me this is the only meal they’ve had that day,” Means said.

A core philosophy of the program is to reduce stigma and focus on providing women the resources they and their children need to achieve optimal health. In addition to engaging women during appointments, Bridges to Moms staff visit women in the community to bring them food, diapers, baby clothes, gift cards and other much-needed items.

“We focus on saying here is where you are, here is where you want to go and here are all the ways we can help you,” Means said. “We always tell the women, ‘You are not doing this alone anymore.’”

Set up for Success

The program also places a strong emphasis on helping mothers regain their socioeconomic footing to set them up for future success. Last month, Bridges to Moms hosted a Career Day event in the Hale Building for Transformative Medicine in partnership with Williams James College and Cambridge Trust.

At one station, a Bridges to Moms staff member helped attendees write their resume. Representatives from Williams James College Workforce Development Program spoke with participants about a job training program to become a community health worker. Cambridge Trust volunteers helped mothers create budgets and savings goals.

The event also provided attendees with child care, food, giveaways of baby clothes and free entry into raffles for bigger-ticket baby items, including a pack-and-play portable crib and a bassinet. Translators were available at every station to ensure Spanish-speaking mothers in the program could fully participate.

Additionally, Brigham neonatologists and pediatricians also hosted tables where mothers could ask questions about caring for their baby and common health concerns for infants.

We care. Period. logo

“I volunteered as soon as I heard about this event,” said Silvia Patrizi, MD, a neonatologist in the Department of Pediatric Newborn Medicine and director of the department’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Taskforce. “I think the exceptionality of the program is, one, to follow these women and their babies from their pregnancy until the child is a year old and, two, that it is not charity. It’s really helping these women to grow out of poverty, regain dignity and become empowered by making sure they know their rights and have the tools to make a stable life for themselves and their family.”

Roa Martinez — who attended the event with her now 5-month-old daughter, Mila — says she doesn’t know where she would be without Bridges to Moms, which has helped her apply for rent payment assistance and housing lotteries, supplied her with baby clothes and provided access to community resources.

“When I met the Bridges to Moms staff at that first appointment, it was the most wonderful thing ever. Sometimes, you just need somebody to listen to you — and somebody who has had a similar situation as you,” she said. “I’m still so grateful to Bridges to Moms.”

Today, Roa Martinez said she is more determined than ever to give her daughter the best life she can. She is eager to start working again and set up a savings account, with dreams of one day buying a home and becoming a community health worker herself so that she can give back.

“This one right here — she is what keeps me going,” Roa Martinez said while cuddling her baby. “It’s not until you have your own child that you know what it means to keep going, even if you don’t have anything left in you. It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to complain sometimes. But as long as you don’t give up, that’s the only thing that matters. And I haven’t — and I won’t.”

For more information about the Bridges to Moms program or to learn how to support it, contact Roseanna Means, MD.