CelebrateOne Leads Fight to Reduce Infant Mortality in Central Ohio

The organization has made significant strides in reducing deaths. Executive Director Maureen Stapleton now has a much tougher task: addressing the racial disparity behind the numbers.

Peter Tonguette
Maureen Stapleton at Barnett Community Center, located in an East Columbus neighborhood that CelebrateOne regularly serves

Maureen Stapleton knows it’s an old adage of uncertain attribution, but she can’t resist using it to describe the mission of CelebrateOne, the organization she has led as executive director since September: A society is judged on how it treats its most vulnerable citizens.

“A baby and a senior citizen are those for our community,” says Stapleton. CelebrateOne leads a multiorganization effort to bring down infant mortality in Franklin County.

“We are focused on saving babies and giving babies what they need,” she says. “We know when a mother doesn’t have adequate housing, doesn’t have adequate transportation, doesn’t have a job, doesn’t have access to appropriate health care—there are a host of things that can happen in that mom’s life that impact the success of a child celebrating their first birthday.”

If Stapleton sounds passionate about her job, it’s because she is. Prior to joining CelebrateOne, Stapleton, who holds degrees from Howard University and Bowling Green State University, enjoyed an eclectic career that took her from teaching to public administration to state government. A native and longtime resident of Detroit, the 55-year-old once served as a member of the Michigan House of Representatives from 2011 to 2012. “Everything that I have done up to this point has prepared me to be the executive director of CelebrateOne,” she says.

The organization, a public-private partnership that operates on an $8.2 million budget, started in 2014 at the recommendation of the Greater Columbus Infant Mortality Task Force with the goal of bringing down overall infant mortality numbers. “The city funds some of our efforts, but we are a community-fed effort,” says Stapleton, pointing to private philanthropy that helps fund the organization’s initiatives in supporting pre- and postnatal care.

Through programs ranging from crib distribution—just over 1,200 were distributed last year in Franklin County—to pairing new and expecting mothers with needed services and care, CelebrateOne can claim considerable success: Between 2007 and 2011, on average there were 8.6 deaths per 1,000 live births, but by 2019, that number had shrunk to 6.9 per 1,000.

Yet one statistic remains alarming and unacceptable: Black infants still die at two-and-a-half times the rate of their white counterparts. Dr. Mysheika Roberts, the health commissioner of Columbus Public Health and a board member of CelebrateOne, is emphatic in explaining the reason for the inequality: systemic racism.

“For the majority of health disparities we see in this country, the root cause is racism,” Roberts says. “It’s decades of poor treatment, mistrust for the health care community, low-income jobs, low-income neighborhoods that aren’t conducive to living a healthy life.”

Stephanie Hightower, the president and CEO of the Columbus Urban League, says that CelebrateOne’s shift to focusing on racial disparities in infant mortality makes sense: Such issues simply weren’t on the radar of the general public several years ago in the way they are now.

“When CelebrateOne was conceived … we didn’t have a social-justice movement, we didn’t have the declaration that racism is a public-health crisis in this community,” says Hightower, who serves as the organization’s treasurer. Now that the issue is front and center, though, CelebrateOne can get to work. “Having a dedicated initiative—that this is all of what they do, there’s nothing else, they don’t have multiple programming efforts, they are singularly focused—I think will give us the upper hand.”

Stapleton, who is Black, says that racism can creep into how Black mothers-to-be are treated when seeking prenatal care. “How people view concerns brought up by African American women are often done through a lens that could be discriminatory,” says Stapleton, who envisions a series of initiatives to help erase the disparity. For example, health care providers should receive training about implicit bias, and Black people need to be encouraged to enter medicine, especially obstetrics.

Some solutions sound intuitive, but CelebrateOne has the data to back them up. “If somebody had said to you four years ago, five years ago, ‘Do you think housing is a leading indicator of why someone might not be able to get a baby to his or her first birthday?’ you would’ve said, ‘Yeah, housing probably is important,’” Stapleton says. In April, CelebrateOne will issue a report confirming that a stable home life reduces infant mortality.

Public service is something of a calling for Stapleton, who points to the influence of her late parents: James, a police officer, and Ella, an educator. “They were public servants to their core,” says Stapleton, who remembers being taken to shelters to give Christmas gifts to children there. Stapleton, who is not married, has no children of her own, but she has spent her career gravitating toward helping those who have them. “I spoil all the ones in my life,” she says.

When the executive director position at CelebrateOne opened up, Stapleton, who had been running her own consulting firm, jumped at the opportunity, even though it meant moving during a pandemic.

“To walk into an organization that’s fully functioning with people who are dedicated to the work that they do—I still pinch myself,” says Stapleton, who oversees a 28-person staff.

Roberts says that Stapleton’s status as a newcomer to Columbus enables her to tackle the problems with fresh eyes. “And I also think the fact that she’s an African American woman,” Roberts says. “Although you don’t have to be an African American or minority to tackle a tough subject like disparities and racism, it gives you a vantage point … that someone who is not a minority does not have.”

For her part, Stapleton sounds as if she realizes the enormity of the challenge. “How do you eat an elephant?” she asks. “One bite at a time.”

This story is from the Spring 2021 issue of Columbus Parent.