TAMPA — Estrellita “Lo” Berry got the name “little star” from the Cuban midwife who delivered her in Ybor City.
Born and raised in Tampa, she drifted to Evansville, Ind. for college and moved back permanently in 1983. She worked in mental health for nearly 20 years, focusing primarily on young people who had experienced severe abuse — who were once in a psychiatric facility or entering therapeutic foster care.
She and her husband, Rev. Dr. George Berry, opened their home as a licensed therapeutic foster care residence, providing respite for children. Eventually, however, caring for children at their lowest took its toll.
“I, quite frankly, just got very tired and worn with seeing the children at a point where they are so traumatized,” Lo Berry said. “While we could do things to assist, it wasn’t enough.”
In 1998, she applied to direct a federally funded Healthy Start program at the University of South Florida aimed at reducing infant mortality in Hillsborough’s Black community.
Upon her hiring, “she surrounded herself with a highly committed staff from the Black community and the program took off quickly achieving recognition as one of the top 5 most successful federal Healthy Start programs,” wrote Charles Mahan in his form nominating Berry for the Chiles Advocacy Award, named for former Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles and his wife, Rhea.
Berry is this year’s recipient. Mahan is a retired dean and professor emeritus at the USF’s College of Public Health.
Berry’s program eventually became a free-standing initiative called REACHUP, Inc. with her as president and CEO.
“Since then,” Mahan wrote, “REACHUP, Inc. has been a prime mover among efforts to reduce Black infant mortality in Florida by advocating for programs that increase the involvement of Black churches, and Black fathers.”
The Chiles award is presented each year “to a Floridian who has dedicated their life to improving the lives of children and families, and who has successfully engaged others to promote statewide policies and programs that benefit those children and families.” It will be presented on Monday as part of the annual Children’s Week celebration in Tallahassee.
Berry, 65, has a son, Aaron Lee Berry, 40, and is a grandmother to Bryson Lee Berry, 4, and Aaron Ellis Berry, 5 months. She recently spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about her advocacy in maternal and infant health. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
In the grand scheme of health disparities, where does maternal and infant health fit?
Where it fits is at the top of the pyramid. For a baby that is born unhealthy, there are many physical implications behind it. It impacts overall physical health outcomes. It is important to look at maternal health from a spectrum of womb to tomb. It’s not just one effort or moment or thought, it is about the entire spectrum of women’s health.
Did your past job focusing on mental health impact how you view maternal and child health now?
Absolutely. Not just with recipients of services, it’s with staff and partners. Being aware of people’s mental health is critical in everything we do. Having the background and the understanding of how crucial mental health is to physical well-being and how the two are tied together has had an impact on how I view health overall. They’re intertwined.
For years, REACHUP, Inc. has been focused on addressing mental health during pregnancy and after pregnancy. Prematurity is the number one reason why Black babies die at a greater rate than white babies. And one of the reasons babies are born too soon is the level of stress on the mom, particularly the cumulative stress that African American women endure. Chronic stress has an impact on your physiology. Also, the mental health piece shows up with whomever is rendering services or providing support. Their mental health is important and critical as well for better outcomes for the mom and baby.
You’ve been working in the realm of disparities and health over 20 years now. What’s changed?
There has been more research around the impact of stress and racism on the body, although there’s still not enough. Twenty years ago, there was less funding attached to addressing the causes of maternal child health issues. When the federal Healthy Start project started, it was about addressing the disparity and looking at root causes. It was the only big funding from Health and Human Services at that time. It started out with 12 projects and then went to 102, but that is for the whole country to deal with disparities of infant mortality. It’s nowhere near where it should be if we’re going to really change it. Additionally, I’ve seen a switch in mindset of those providing maternal child health care services, including the willingness to even have the discussion. Twenty years ago, no one wanted to really, truly talk about it.
REACHUP, Inc. started out the gate knowing that we had to embed in our practice, in our work, equity and social justice. Everything we did and have done with our organization has been in regards to making sure we emphasize the urgency of embedding equity and social justice in the work that we do.
What has been the biggest influence in your work with mothers and babies?
I’ve always had this group of people that I could go to to get their take on whatever was in my head and my heart. I’ve always had support of my two co-founders, Deborah Austin and Vanessa Mishkit, both of whom have always been aligned with the mission, vision and core values of integrity.
I’ve always had a very supportive environment with my faith and my pastor, and I’ve always been connected to civic organizations, including my sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha.
My family, too. Throughout this whole process with the time and the energy that it takes to do the work that we do, my husband and son have been selfless. They have really supported me throughout my career.
You’ve appeared before Congress multiple times. What have you spoken about?
I’ve spoken to Congress about meaningful male inclusion being necessary in addressing maternal mortality and infant mortality. To embrace the role that men play and how important it was for us to add benchmarks to measure men’s involvement to federal Healthy Start to help get good outcomes for both mothers and babies.
I also spoke about the importance of addressing disparities, the need for implicit bias trainings in our systems of care, the lack of funding for successful programs to decrease maternal mortality, and why it would be important for us to lift up the doula discipline and create opportunities across the country for moms, particularly in underserved areas, to have a doula. And I also spoke about growing and diversifying the perinatal workforce.
When talking about advancing health equity, what’s the significance of the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people of color and of last year’s racial justice protests?
This is a new awakening, which has created a different lens for those who are in positions to help fund what needs to be funded to address disparities. I do believe that we’re going to see more assistance and support around addressing disparities and it’s going to be more intentional and more strategic. I do believe that there will be additional funding to address issues of implicit bias. I believe there will be more partnerships with clinics, financial assistance and administrative assistance. There’s some good coming out of this past year for overall health. We’re going to see what the implications are.
How do you remain positive in a field that’s always talking about disparities against people who look like you?
I remain hopeful that eventually we’ll get to a place systemically and structurally, where everybody would have quality access to good health care. I remind myself almost every day, that in the twinkling of an eye, I could be in the same circumstance as many of the people we serve. I keep reminding myself how fortunate and blessed I am. That keeps me motivated and inspired.
I know REACHUP, Inc. has done some great things. Instead of Black babies dying at more than four times the rate of white babies in specific communities, it’s now two times. That’s an improvement, but it’s still not enough. We eat, breathe and sleep disparities, and it is heart wrenching. It can dampen your spirits. I’m not going to pretend it’s not hard. After all these years, the disparities remain. But we still have faith and hope.
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.