The effort by 44 churches in eight ZIP codes, is coordinated by the Cuyahoga County Board of Health and the Fatherhood Initiative as part of First Year Cleveland.
The city-county collaborative was formed in December 2015 by a coalition of elected officials and health leaders to address the region's abysmal infant mortality rate, which is among the highest in the nation.
"We know we need to reach people where they are and the churches are well-respected and well-known in reaching people," county spokeswoman Mary Louise Madigan said Wednesday. "We are working very hard to make sure children reach their first birthday."
In 2015, 155 Cuyahoga County babies died before reaching their first birthday, giving the county an infant mortality rate of 10.5 deaths per 1,000 live births, almost double the national rate. The problem is concentrated among African-American families, where the infant mortality rate is three times that of white babies.
In July, a three-year plan was announced. The leading causes of infant death in Ohio are prematurity and preterm births, sleep-related deaths and birth defects.
Members of the Fatherhood Initiative and the Board of Health decided to use a $100,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Medicaid in a new church-centered program to address those issues, Madigan said.
"Churches are a good and trusted resource for the community," she said. The Protect Our Babies Project, which was approved Monday by the county's Board of Control, runs through the end of 2018. Each church will identify a health ambassador, who will receive training from the health department and the Neighborhood Leadership Institute on how to talk to families in their congregations about infant mortality issues, including safe sleep and prenatal care.
The ambassadors will also provide information on healthy homes, smoking cessation, violence protection, chronic disease management, weight management, substance abuse treatment and mental health services. Each pastor will select one Sunday a month for one year to lead a sermon on key messages that impact healthy parents and healthy babies, the county said. And each church will hold one large workshop/community engagement activity focused on reducing of infant mortality.
Stipends will be provided to the churches. The Fatherhood Initiative and Board of Health will track and evaluate the programs and results. "We are working very hard to make sure children reach their first birthday," Madigan said.