Growing Responsibility

Sep. 8, 2015

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Teens take on infant mortality and learn about themselves in the process

“What can I do to save a life?”

It’s a daunting question — and one most people probably never ask themselves. At 16 years old, Maya Thirkill has it answered.

Thirkill is the president of IMPACT, the Infant Mortality Public Awareness Campaign 
for Tennessee.

Run by Girls Inc. of Chattanooga, the teen-led group focuses on lowering their community’s infant mortality rate — the number of babies who die before reaching their first birthday.

In Tennessee, that number is significant. The infant mortality rate in Hamilton County is 8.5 percent, the second highest metro rate in the state after Shelby County’s 10.2 percent.

Nationally, Tennessee ranks fifth for infant mortality at 7.2 percent — a rate that’s comparable to developing countries including Bosnia, Chile and Cuba.

“We were shocked when we found that out,” Thirkill says.

“It’s ridiculous that babies here have the same survival rate as those in developing countries when we have health care and insurance and clean water.”

“We have everything that we need to improve this, so why is it not being done?”

Learn. Go. Do.

At IMPACT, the members receive several weeks of training on infant mortality.

They visit places like Vanderbilt University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to hear about the latest developments in the field.

They learn how to conduct research and run media campaigns.

They create billboards and TV and radio spots on topics like sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Most importantly, they go into the community, setting up booths at health fairs and making presentations at local schools and churches.

“Last year our group of 15 girls reached more than 500 students in Hamilton County,” Thirkill says.

“Teenagers like interacting with us because we’re teenagers. We’re the same kids they beat up with dodgeballs in PE!”

“So we make them feel comfortable.”

Start with what you know

IMPACT starts with teens because it is first and foremost a peer-to-peer organization, not because of any focus on adolescent pregnancy.

“I’m a teenager and I’m not pregnant and I don’t plan on becoming pregnant any time soon,” Thirkill explains, “but for my nieces or my cousins, for the babies in my life, this information matters. Taking care of my body right now for future children — that matters.”

Thirkill is quick to point out that IMPACT doesn’t limit itself to students; they’ll speak to anyone who needs help, especially those in high- risk communities.

“Where I live in Hamilton County, African-American babies die twice as often as white babies. Being an African- American woman, I had to ask: Why is this going on? How can I stop this from happening in my community?”

The short answer: Educate people. Whether at church, school or work, there is an opportunity every day to share information.

Teach people the risk factors: premature birth, poverty, lack
of prenatal care.

Show them how their circumstances and actions affect their baby.

Help them take concrete steps to change the outcome.

It sounds simple, but the results are far-reaching.

“I honestly don’t go a day without talking about infant mortality because I always see a way that it could affect somebody’s life,” Thirkill says.

“And after I do a presentation and I see those changes in their lives, it’s so heartwarming because they’ve really taken what you’ve said and applied it. Even simple stuff like the proper way for a baby to sleep — alone on its back in a crib — matters.”

“Stand up for something that’s important for you. Just believe in something and stand up and fight for it.”

Members benefit, too

Helping people find what they care about is Thirkill’s favorite thing about IMPACT.

“Through the program, we’ve all found our passions,” she says.

“Some girls want to work in a NICU when they’re older. I want to study generational health. As a teenager I’m used to adults saying, ‘OK you’re going to do this,’ but here, everything is on our shoulders. We are working together: planning events, reading grants, making decisions.”

She points out that each girl who gets involved with IMPACT has her own reason for feeling that this issue matters.

Thirkill doesn’t hesitate to explain why it is important to her.

“After you see a baby make it through their first year of life because of the information you’ve given — if you save that baby’s life — there is no better feeling.”


Want to learn more about inspiring Tennessee teens?

Read about tnAchieves or BlueCross diversity scholarships.


Photos by Andrea Behrends.