Diane Bawcom 

Taking giant leaps at BabySteps

Diane Bawcom's job is all about life. As director of BabySteps, a nonprofit education and incentive program for limited-income moms-to-be, Bawcom spends her days with scores of women and newborns.

The program--now in its 11th year at St. Michael's Episcopal Cathedral in Boise--awards points to pregnant women and new mothers participating in educational and prenatal-care classes: moms earn extra points for healthy behaviors for themselves and their babies. Points are then redeemed at the Baby Steps boutique for diapers, clothes and baby furnishings.

What was your big dream when you were growing up near San Francisco?

When I was in eighth grade, for my community service project, I volunteered as a candy striper at a community hospital. I wanted to work in the gift shop, but it was full, so I ended up in what they called extended care. I was 13 years old and pretty naive. I was expecting to see elderly people, but what I saw was a lot of young men. I would fill their water pitchers and help them with their meals. One day I would feed them. The next they were gone. At the time, we didn't know what was going on, but by 1984-1985, we knew. It was AIDS. Not long after, my friend and I would watch her father, who was a reporter, cover huge gay-pride parades in San Francisco. If you saw the movie Milk, well, we were right in the middle of that.

And did that influence your college years?

I started off as finance major. And I was a resident assistant. Well, we had a suicide epidemic on campus -- in one semester, we had a suicide attempt every week. I even walked in on someone attempting suicide. At that point, I shifted from finance to social work.

That's a lot of exposure to tragedy at an early age. What kept you from running away?

I opened a door, but I really didn't know what I was walking into. I just couldn't imagine being so desperate. I ended up going to graduate school at the University of Texas in Arlington, and I knew that I wanted my thesis work to be on death and dying. I focused on children's grief.

And now you work on the other end of life's spectrum. How is the BabySteps program different from the time that you walked in the door?

The program started in 2003. Since I started here in 2007, the diversity of the program and the scope of our services have totally morphed. We know through research that low birth weights can be turned around with proper pre-natal care, medical supervision and education.

What are the requirements for participants?

You must be an Ada County resident and low income. To put that into normal language, that means for a family of four, it's around $20,000 a year. For a married couple with a baby on the way, that's about $31,000 a year. Women join while they're pregnant, and they're with the program until their baby is 15 months old.

But it's only a one-time enrollment.

We're not a charity program. That was a rule when I started. We used to re-enroll people and we had a revolving door. That, quite simply, doesn't break the cycle of dependence on social services. I believe that my role is to educate, inform and empower--to find meaningful employment, complete their education and find community resources. You're either part of the problem or part of the solution.

Are your classes bilingual?

All of our classes are taught in English. Part of that is that I can't find presenters who are multi-lingual. What I ask of the women who have limited English skills is that they concurrently enroll in ESL classes. Those are really done well at the College of Western Idaho and the Learning Lab. So, our participants are only really limited with their English in those first few months. They pick it up really quick.

How can you best describe the women who walk through your doors?

The face I see at BabySteps is an average 23-year-old mom. At the time they walk in, three-fourths of them live with the baby's father. By the time they deliver the baby, that drops to about half.

Is that because the relationships weren't appropriate?

There's that "Oh my God" factor. I really don't care whether they're legally married. It's always better to be in a healthy relationship, or no relationship, than a bad one. I tell them, "You can do this just fine. We will surround you with support of women helping women, and you can define your family by whoever you want."


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