Shemika Whiteside Wants to Help Women Thrive in Pregnancy and Beyond

As a New Year’s resolution in January 2021, Shemika Whiteside posted an idea on Facebook she’d been thinking about for years: a maternity program to help women in Louisville, Kentucky with housing, medical and mental health needs, birthing support, and social services. The response was incredible. 

Shemika heard from numerous people saying, “I’ve been waiting for something like this” and offering their specialties, whether parenting classes or therapy or pediatrician care or doula services. She advertised for a board of directors on LinkedIn and recruited members with impressive backgrounds who offer diverse points of view. 

Shemika is now the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Zora’s Cradle. The non-profit has an official launch date of August 1. Currently, they’re setting up office space and preparing townhomes they’ve secured as residences for pregnant women who are unhoused or at risk of becoming homeless. 

“I just want women to have their needs taken care of and have a thriving pregnancy. They should have housing, they should have someone to cook them a hot meal, transport them to appointments, get connected to a doula or a midwife or whatever birth plan, case management, therapy. And then after that pregnancy, they still have these services for a couple of years, just to make sure they continue to thrive and are able to be successful.”

Hitting the Ground Running

Two property owners offered locations to Zora’s Cradle for housing, one with several adjacent townhomes and the other with a single-family house they hadn’t been using. Right from the start, the women served by Zora’s Cradle will have somewhere to go. 

The non-profit will soon be opening applications, and community partners will be referring women as well. The program won’t be strictly residential — they’ve been contacted by women with secure housing who believe they could benefit from a doula, case management to oversee their care, or other services. 

To support Zora’s Cradle, Shemika is looking for financial donations of any amount, as well as baby clothes and needs, housewares, and gift cards. Volunteers too. She also encourages supporters to become civically engaged, and in particular to educate themselves on bills being considered in state legislatures that affect maternal health care. 

Turning Tragedy into Inspiration 

Shemika’s idea for Zora’s Cradle came from a traumatic and life-altering experience: “I wanted to do something so what happened to me doesn’t happen to other women.”

After earning her Master’s in Social Work at the University of Louisville in 2013, Shemika found herself pregnant and without a permanent home. The one maternity care facility available at the time took her in, but it was not a supportive environment. “You couldn’t take a nap. You couldn’t have a snack. It was like a boot camp, and I was so uncomfortable there,” she says. 

Then things took a turn for the worse. She began experiencing severe pain in her fifth month of pregnancy. While staff at the maternity program dismissed her concerns, a retired nurse became her advocate, connecting her with an OB-GYN and, in Shemika’s view, saving her life. The doctor told her that her delivery would happen a month or two early due to a lack of amniotic fluid, and said they’d monitor her condition. But the pain got worse. Days later, after a hospital told Shemika to go home despite her insistence that she was having contractions, the retired nurse looking out for her, ensured Shemika was able to see the doctor. What resulted was an immediate delivery via C-section. Her daughter lived only three days. 

At the maternity program, Shemika had no access to grief counseling or a health care follow-up plan. She left to stay with a friend while waiting for an apartment. “I was very, very angry for years.” 

While her own experiences drove Shemika’s desire to ensure other women would not undergo similar treatment during pregnancy, she’s also motivated by her concern for rising maternal morbidity. “Women are dying and people just aren’t talking about it. People don’t listen to women, especially women of color.” 

In fact, the maternal mortality rate for the United States is the worst in the industrialized world: 17.4 per 100,000 pregnancies. And for Black women in the U.S., the rate is more than twice that: 37.1 deaths per 100,000 pregnancies. 

Stand Firm in Your Vision 

Shemika hopes that once Zora’s Cradle has proven in Louisville that a full-service maternity program yields positive outcomes, the organization can go national, or inspire others to create similar programs across the country. 

Her advice to those aspiring to make an impact is to just go for it. “I feel like I was whispering what I wanted to do. But once I truly developed the idea and stood firm in it and didn’t waver from it, all these doors opened. I don’t care how crazy your vision is, you’d be surprised how many people support it.”

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