By Olivia Marcus & Nancy Wang
WASHINGTON — Felicia Hunter, a 21-year-old college junior, discovered she was pregnant in August.
“When I found out I was about to be a mother, I was excited, scared and all sorts of feelings,” Hunter said.
Just one month away from her due date, Hunter still didn’t have a crib.
“I took care of some kids before, and just by observing I found out that it’s pretty important to have a crib to have a family,” said Victor Manzanilla, 21, the baby’s father.
Recently, the young Indiana couple received a happy surprise—a free crib from a student-run nonprofit at their own university.
The organization, called BridgeMe Youth, is popping up at college campuses across the country. The group buys cribs and donates them to local community centers, and was founded by Christina and Raymond Dong, siblings at the University of Chicago, and Logan Mulvihill, a junior at Valparaiso University.
The goal, the students say, is to help combat Sudden Infant Death syndrome, which can be caused by sleeping on unsafe surfaces like adult beds or couches. More than 2,000 infants die each year of SIDs in the United States.
“With all the causes of infant mortality, it’s actually the most preventable kind,” said Raymond Dong. “Research has shown that having a crib drastically helps.”
Although some cribs go to fellow students like Hunter, many go to families living in poor communities, where infant mortality rates are highest.
“That’s why we came up with this project of donating cribs to community centers,” said Christina Dong. “We thought it would be a relatively straightforward way to actually accomplish something.”
So far, BridgeMe Youth has donated nearly 60 cribs to expectant parents and families—and the students have big plans to expand their efforts.
Confronting a national problem
The U.S. has long struggled with an infant mortality rate notably higher than most other developed countries. About six out of 1,000 infants born will die before they reach age one, a similar rate to Serbia and Guam, according to the Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook.
“In Englewood, a neighborhood west of the University of Chicago, people told me they literally don’t have money to put food on the table, so they’re not going to buy a crib for the baby,” he said. “They’re going to sleep with the baby in their bed or on their couch.”
Research shows that this can be dangerous, and sometimes fatal, for infants. Since their brains are still developing, infants don’t always wake up when they can’t breathe, and they can be suffocated in their sleep.
In 1994, the NIH’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development started the Safe to Sleep campaign to raise awareness about SIDs and reduce the nation’s high infant mortality rate. But nearly 55 percent of infants still sleep in unsafe conditions, according to a recent study.
“Cribs are expensive sometimes. That’s $200 to buy a new crib, and if you buy a used crib sometimes you don’t know if there’s something wrong with it,” he said. “If a crib can make a difference between your child living to the age of one or not, that’s really important.”
Measuring the impact
In September, BridgeMe Youth started working with Cribs for Kids, a national crib donation campaign partnered with the NIH.
“We signed up for a licensed agreement with Cribs for Kids so we can purchase discounted cribs through their program,” said Mulvihill, co-founder of BridgeMe Youth and director at its Valparaiso University chapter.
“We are honored to be a beneficiary for this college initiative,” said Heather Glaser, who works at Cribs for Kids. “We love the Crib-a-Thon idea and are going to be working with BridgeMe Youth to make it into a national event every year.”
Last year, Mulvihill conducted the first annual “Crib-a-Thon” donation event on Valparaiso’s campus. The campaign raised $1,600 and donated 32 cribs to the Family Youth and Service Bureau, a local community center in Porter County, Indiana.
Melanie Dooley, a director at the community center, was excited to receive the first wave of the donations from the students.
“If even more younger people can get involved in it, it’s just all the better,” Dooley said.
That seems like a lofty goal for an organization that was founded a little more than a year ago, but the students think they may have a leg up.
“We all believe really strongly in the network of college students,” said Christina. “If you think about it, at what other time in your life are you going to be able to access such a huge network?”
So far, that network has been working. BridgeMe Youth has popped up at 19 universities, mostly through personal connections made by the students.
“We feel like we’ve really found a model to expand,” said Raymond.
Although BridgeMe Youth is currently concentrated in Illinois and Indiana, Raymond said the group wants to branch out over the next few years.
“After we kind of saturate the Midwest, then we’ll go probably to one of the coasts,” Raymond said. “Our vision is to donate between 1,000 and 2,000 cribs. That’s a lot of cribs, but we think it’s doable.”
Spreading the word
“Something a lot of people don’t think about when you think about the U.S. is infant mortality. We’re a developed country, extremely technological, with lots of innovation in terms of research and science,” said Raymond. “But six out of 1000 babies are still dying. The absurdity of the problem, at least initially, just really intrigued me and encouraged me to learn more.”
Raymond said BridgeMe Youth, in addition to donating cribs, hopes to raise awareness about infant mortality in disadvantaged communities.
“Both of us are originally from Oxford, Ohio which is a very small, rural town,” said Christina. “It’s very insulated and predominantly white, I would say. I was very sheltered living there.”
Christina and her brother, Raymond, were first exposed to the severity of the issue when they came to the University of Chicago.
“I think as students, and especially students who live in Chicago, it’s kind of up to us to go out there and try to help our local communities,” said Raymond. “It really opened my eyes to how much unjust disparity and poverty is out there. ”
Young adults could play a crucial role in spreading awareness about infant mortality, said Dr. Shavon Artis, head of the Safe to Sleep Campaign.
“College students are able to spread the word among their peers,” Artis said. “They also might become parents themselves in the future and the sooner they are educated the better.”
BridgeMe Youth aims to engage 500 college students across the country and hopes that many will donate at least one crib.
“The network effect will work to our advantage,” said Raymond. “Our ultimate goal is to make college students extremely aware.”
As for Hunter and Manzanilla, they said they’re just excited to have a safe place for their baby to sleep.
“All I know is that I want to be a good mom and I want my baby to be safe,” said Hunter. “I’m so grateful that there are people our age out there committing themselves to such an important cause.”