New Maternal Health and Birth Equity Program Launches at Samuel Merritt University with $1.5 Million Grant

Talya Sanders

An additional $250,000 will support scholarships and research for formerly incarcerated individuals and survivors of human trafficking and child sexual exploitation

The Millicent A Zaludek Revocable Living Trust granted $1.75 million to Samuel Merritt University this month to address critical health equity issues facing the San Francisco Bay Area. Three new programs will focus on improving maternal health and birth equity, creating employment and health services opportunities for formerly incarcerated people, and advancing the health and future of survivors of human trafficking and child sexual exploitation. The programs will be overseen and managed by SMU’s Center for Community Engagement and Ethnic Health Institute.

“These new initiatives will reimagine community health, provide new opportunities for SMU students and faculty to care for underresourced populations, and help dedicated community members take their careers in healthcare to the next level,” says Sam Alavi-Irvine, director of the Center for Community Engagement and Ethnic Health Institute. “The Zaludek Trust chose to partner with SMU because we have a proven history of strong community partnerships and faculty expertise in these topics.” 

Maternal health statistics reveal the stark issue in the United States, which ranks the fourth worst maternal mortality rate in the world, according to the World Health Organization. In 2021, deaths of pregnant women increased by 40 percent in the United States. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s figures say the maternal mortality risk for Black women is almost three times higher than it is for white women. Native American women also face a much higher risk of dying during and after pregnancy, compared with white women. Most of these deaths are preventable, the agencies say, if women have access to quality healthcare and can plan and space out their pregnancies.

The Millicent A. Zaludek Maternal Health/Birth Equity Endowment provides $1.5 million to improve outcomes for expectant mothers through research and service fellowships and increased clinical support for expecting mothers through a special partnership with Roots Community Health Center, which serves those most impacted by poor maternal health outcomes and birth inequities. The faculty fellow will provide consultation to Roots patients and staff and conduct relevant research. Scholarships will enable community health workers at Roots and other East Bay residents to begin or grow careers in maternal health equity.

“There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here — we want to tap into an incredible leader in our community. We asked Roots to partner with us because it’s one of the biggest powerhouses in supporting Black communities and communities of color in Northern California, and a trusted partner of SMU,” says Alavi-Irvine. “We want to do this work in and with our community, and Roots has the track record of doing it well.”

With many SMU faculty members passionate about health equity, the new initiative elevates their work and weaves it into the fabric of SMU’s curriculum and hands-on learning experiences. It will also help retain, recruit, and promote faculty of color, which aligns with SMU’s commitment to diversifying the healthcare workforce.

The Millicent A. Zaludek Supporting Survivors Scholarship will expand the work SMU does in partnership with East Bay organizations like MISSSEY that are dedicated to preventing trafficking and child exploitation and supporting survivors. Scholarships, totaling $150,000 over five years, will go to survivors of trafficking or exploitation and to students who have a deep investment in providing healthcare and other social services to impacted individuals.

"Education is a valuable tool that empowers survivors and helps them gain agency they historically have not had,” says Alavi-Irvine. “An education in healthcare can give them the power to utilize their experiences to support other survivors of trafficking and exploitation — it’s a truly full-circle experience.”

Lastly, the Millicent A. Zaludek Reentry through Healthcare Fund is a five-year, $100,000 pilot program that will focus and expand SMU’s service to formerly incarcerated individuals. SMU has had longtime partnerships with various community-based organizations that work directly with justice-impacted individuals throughout the state, including providing podiatry and nursing care to homeless individuals, many of whom were previously incarcerated. In the fund’s first year, it will continue to build and expand connections with government and community-based organizations. The next four years will focus on providing scholarships to formerly incarcerated individuals pursuing careers in healthcare and supporting students going into healthcare fields to provide services to formerly incarcerated communities.

Alan Statman, Trustee of the Millicent A Zaludek Revocable Living Trust, approached SMU because of its trusted community connections and expert faculty, says Al Frisone, vice president for University Advancement and Communications.

“A gift of this magnitude elevates the maternal health disparity crisis in this country. We’re starting by serving targeted, underserved East Bay communities, thanks to partnerships with organizations like Roots Community Health Center, and our long-term vision is much larger,” he explains. “Millicent Zaludek’s gift will not only live on in perpetuity at SMU, but we’re committed to raising additional funds to expand these programs across SMU’s campuses and the communities we serve across California.”

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