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SSW, UNC and Robeson community partners receive Carolina public service award

Betsy Bledsoe, Ph.D.
Betsy Bledsoe, Ph.D.

A community based participatory research project, led by a partnership of residents in Robeson County, N.C., and faculty and students at UNC-Chapel Hill, has been selected for the Office of the Provost Public Service Award for Engaged Scholarship. The Carolina Center for Public Service presents the awards annually to honor individuals and organizations for outstanding contributions to the campus and broader communities.

The project known as, MI-PHOTOS: Mothers Informing Pregnancy and Postpartum Health Outcomes Through StOry Sharing, was recognized in the category for engaged research and  focuses on the health of pregnant women and mothers of infants and toddlers in Robeson County.

Betsy Bledsoe, an associate professor at the the School of Social Work, Katherine LeMasters, a doctoral student in epidemiology at the Gillings School of Public Health, and Jada Brooks, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing, worked closely with the Robeson community over the past year to complete the project. Other partners included Kim Pevia, a community organizer and resident of Robeson County; Dolores Vasquez, Erica Little, Janice Oxendine and Brittany Gordon with Healthy Start; Darlene Gold with Nurse-Family Partnership; Melissa Sampson with the Robeson County Health Department and Cherry Beasley with UNC-Pembroke’s Department of Nursing.

As a partnership-driven project, MI-PHOTOS put the research into the hands of the subjects –eight mothers who used pictures, discussions and storytelling to document the realities of health and well-being within Robeson County, one of a handful of counties in the southeast portion of the state that continues to face maternal health challenges, including poor birth outcomes. The mothers also helped to identify opportunities to advocate for change within their own community, said Bledsoe, who is interested in maternal and perinatal mental health, especially in communities with high percentages of low-income individuals.

“Robeson County is a strong community with many dedicated individual community members and community organizers, so there are a lot of strengths there,” Bledsoe said. “What we are trying to identify is if there are any gaps in existing services and resources and could we work with our partners to help develop services to fill those gaps.”

image of Katherine LeMasters
Katherine LeMasters

Although Robeson County offers programs and support for all mothers until their children turn 2, some of the project mothers indicated a need for ongoing support, including access to individual therapy and peer-based support, as well as enhanced access to health care. The goal is to eventually present the findings in a community forum, Bledsoe said. A scheduled presentation for April was postponed due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bledsoe said she and her partners were honored to receive one of this year’s engaged scholarship awards, in part, because the recognition demonstrates the university’s support for community based participatory research, which is often difficult to fund. The award also recognizes the important contribution of the project mothers and community members, who were vital to the research, she added.

“Research is greatly enhanced when it’s done in partnership with people who are from the community,” she said.