Stand Up for Something

Feb. 9, 2016

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Maya Thirkill talks about Tennessee’s alarming infant mortality rate, leading teen girls and how she's taking control of her future

“Have you ever seen Mean Girls?”

Maya Thirkill jokes when asked what the hardest part is about leading a group of teenage girls — but her point is well-taken.

As the 16-year-old leader of IMPACT — the “Infant Mortality Public Awareness Campaign for Tennessee” — Thirkill’s challenge isn’t just teaching her peers how to save babies’ lives; it’s working with her peers to figure out how to do that.

“The hardest part is the same thing that’s the best part: being a teen-led organization,” she says.

“Have you ever worked with an all-female group of high schoolers? It’s hard! But I’m learning. I’m learning that I love helping and progressing and leading my team. It’s a struggle, but it’s also fun.”

Run by Girls, Inc. of Chattanooga, IMPACT tasks young women with educating their peers in Hamilton County about infant mortality.

And that is no small task: More babies die before their first birthday in Tennessee than in 44 other states. In practical terms, that means a baby dies every 12 hours.

When Thirkill learned those facts, she knew she had to get involved.

She talked with Better Tennessee about how she did that, what she’s learned and where she plans to go from here.

Q&A with Maya Thirkill

What is infant mortality?

Infant mortality refers to any baby that dies before its first birthday.

At IMPACT, our focus is how we can prevent that in our community.

How do you prevent it?

Educate people.

When it comes to babies, no one really focuses on the sad facts. Everybody always thinks when you have babies, you just keep them healthy, but it’s not that simple.

If you know that a baby can die just from sleeping the wrong way and we teach you what the right way is, you can save that baby’s life.

The proper way for a baby to sleep is A-B-C:

  • Alone
  • On its Back
  • In a Crib

What tools do you use to teach people?

A lot of our outreach is done through public service announcements (PSAs), so billboards and radio.

We also do health fairs and in-school presentations, which is definitely our best way of reaching people.

Last year we spoke to more than 500 students.

But we’ll go anywhere. If people ask us to come to their church, we will. We want to spread the information to anybody who’s willing to listen.

According to the CDC, the most common reasons babies die within the first year of life are:

  • Birth defects
  • Preterm birth (birth before 37 weeks gestation)
  • Low birth weight (birth weight of less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces)
  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
  • Maternal pregnancy complications
  • Injuries (e.g., suffocation, abuse)

How did you get involved with IMPACT?

I had no idea what I wanted to do in school, but I had a family member in the program.

As I learned about the issue, I was like, ‘OK, this is important; I need to be able to save lives.’

The statistics are alarming. Hamilton County has the second highest infant mortality rate of the four metro areas in Tennessee, and Tennessee’s rate of 7.9 percent is comparable with developing countries like Bosnia and Cuba.

We were shocked when we found that out.

It’s ridiculous that in developing countries babies are surviving at the same rate [as here] when we have health care and insurance and clean water.

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

Where I live in Hamilton County, African-American babies die twice as often as white babies.

And the only people who have a higher mortality rate than us is Shelby County, which is Memphis, where there’s also a large African-American population.

Being an African-American woman, I said, ‘Why is this going on? How can I stop this from happening in my community? What can I do to save somebody’s life?’

And then I learned about the Life Course Initiative.

What is the Life Course Initiative?

My first year in IMPACT, we went to Wisconsin to learn about how they decreased their infant mortality rate — they used to have an extremely high one and they lowered it by half.

It’s called the Life Course Initiative, which basically means that everything that goes on in a woman’s life since her birth affects her child’s ability to have a healthy life.

A lot of people believe that what happens in those nine months of pregnancy dictates what happens in the life of the child; or what happens in the first year of a child’s life does. But it’s everything the mother goes through.

Risk factors for infant mortality include:

  • Socioeconomic status
  • The age of the mother
  • Sleep habits
  • Prenatal care

So if the mother was in a really dangerous environment as a teenager, that affects the life of her child. If she was really stressed out about school or work, that affects the life of her child. If she was really happy and active, all of that affects the life of her child.

I was shocked. And I knew that this was my passion.

I wanted to make sure that the next generation isn’t decimated by our mistakes.

So you start with teens. How do they usually respond to your presentations?

Teenagers like interacting with us because we are teenagers.

We’re not using words that are over their heads; we’re not talking down to them. We’re the same kids that they beat up with dodgeballs in P.E. We’re just normal teenagers, so that’s why they feel so comfortable.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve seen IMPACT do for others?

It’s really two things:

The first is the change that I’ve seen in people’s lives.

After I do a presentation and see people start to do things differently, it’s so heartwarming because they’ve really taken what you’ve said and applied it. After you see a baby make it through his or her first year of life because of the information you’ve given, there is no better feeling.

The second thing is how it changes people’s mindsets.

I’ve had people come up and say, ‘OK, now I want to be an advocate for this program,’ or ‘I’m going to be an advocate for this program.’ So people are not only being advocates for infant mortality, but also for everything in their life that’s unspoken for.

What’s next? Do you know what you want to study in college?

I’m really interested in civil rights for everybody, so originally I wanted to be an attorney.

I see what’s going on in the country, and it’s taken me by storm. I think somebody needs to stand up for that.

But for me, having learned all about generational health through IMPACT, I want to pursue that.

I suffer from depression and anxiety, and that throws a lot of people off. They think, ‘Oh she’s mentally ill; that’s crazy,’ and I’m like, ‘No, this is normal.’

So I want to study mental illness stigma — rather, I want to stop mental illness stigma.

I plan to study sociology or psychology as my undergrad at Spelman College, and then I want to be an advocate.

I want to use this as my platform to teach others. Eventually I want to start my own nonprofit for mental illness in the black community, and now I’m in the process of creating a nonprofit to study how mental health affects physical health.

If people take away one thing from what you’re doing, what should it be?

Stand up for something that’s important for you.

Just believe in something, and stand up for it and fight for it.


Want to learn more about inspiring Tennessee teens?

Read about tnAchieves, BlueCross diversity scholarships or more about IMPACT.


Photos by Andrea Behrends.