Diversity Uncategorized

The Briana Project

By: Sara Vranes, CPM

What is The Briana Project?

The Briana Project is a mobile outreach program providing free postpartum care,
education, and advocacy for underserved women and mothers in the Salt Lake Valley.
We provide in-home and mobile prenatal and postpartum visits and community classes
in Salt Lake City. We meet with and assess the needs of individual women and their
families. We provide meals, basic household, personal, and clothing items, and access to
a supportive and loving community. We listen to them and address their needs directly
as we provide a safe space and respectful care.

The co founders of The Briana Project: Rachel Swan, Sara Vranes, Cathy Larson, & Vanessa Kerr.

The first expedition of The Briana Project took place in July of 2012, with a three-woman
team traveling to the Saraya region of Senegal. Three years later, a group of 4 women
decided to revitalize and refocus The Briana Project’s efforts, this time focusing on our
own neighborhood. We considered continuing our work with the women and families in
Senegal, but we felt a strong pull to stay local. We wanted to continue the work that
Briana started when she was alive, to give a voice to the voiceless women in our
community, to listen to those women, and to help them feel safe and provided for. We
believe that when a woman has access to respectful care, advocacy, and education, her
power to change her world becomes limitless. We wanted to help foster this change and
this power, to help create peace one woman at a time.

Who is Briana?

An important part of understanding The Briana Project is understanding who Briana is. Briana Blackwelder is a young, visionary midwife who believed all women deserve access to safe space and respectful care. Her vision was to enact change in maternal health practices, both in local and international communities. Briana died in a tragic car accident in April 2011. The Briana Project was created by her friends and fellow birthworkers as a way to honor and further her important work.

Current Projects

In our efforts to remain local and meet the needs our community, the specific projects we dedicate our energy and resources vary. This is a learning experience for all involved, and we continue to grow with each new season. While our mission statement remains the same, the group we focus on changes as the needs change, whether this be the needs of our refugee, homeless, underserved, or the otherwise over looked women throughout Northern Utah. Where there is a need, we fill it. We make it a priority to remain involved in the community, and assist other local organizations when we see a need arise. We do not want to recreate the wheel—we just want it to stay in motion with an increased efficacy.

Just this week, a woman reached out to us, asking if we would be able to help her. She had first contacted us back in the summer, as VOA (Volunteers of America) mentioned us to her as a place to seek support. She was pregnant, then, and was seeking help with providing for the needs of her baby. We were able to discuss which supplies she could need, and she felt comfortable enough to bring up her struggle to remain sober. We explained that we would be happy to help her acquire supplies for her baby, and strongly encouraged her to go forward with seeking sobriety. We gave her information on programs designed to fill this very specific need. She thanked us and said she would look into those programs. Six months passed, and last week she reached out again. She had completed treatment and is currently sober with her 3 month old baby. We are meeting with her tonight to provide her with diapers, clothes, and a stroller. Donations of funds and supplies have made this possible.

Some of our projects over the last two years have included:

  • Les Femmes Kits: Hygiene kits designed specially for our homeless sisters throughout Salt Lake County, including pads, tampons, socks, deodorant, and handcrafted soap from local vendors. We assembled over 100 kits on International Women’s Day, and handed them out the following Saturday throughout downtown Salt Lake City
  • A bra drive for homeless shelters after a woman we met during our homeless outreach mentioned that bras are not typically provided in clothing donations. We wanted to remedy this, so we put the call out to our community and within two weeks we had over fifty bras of varying sizes, including nursing bras
  • Provide immediate postpartum housing to help a woman and her 3 day old baby to live in a safe space as she recovered. We put out a call on Facebook asking for supporters to sponsor a day in the long-term hotel and/or to provide a hot meal for mother and baby. The response was overwhelming: 6 weeks of safe lodging was provided, and two weeks of meals
  • Provide prenatal care, birth, and postpartum care to women that did not feel comfortable with the care they were receiving in the hospital, and could not afford a homebirth. We helped to provide loving care in a safe space
  • Provide lactation assistance to refugee and homeless women
  • In home visits to refugee families needing prenatal and postpartum support

Join us in creating a healthier community, one woman at a time. The Briana Project is a registered non- profit organization. All donations are tax deductible. Click here to donate. You can also find us on Instagram at @the_briana_project.

About Sara:

Sara Vranes works as a midwife, doula, and lactation specialist. A native of San Francisco, Sara moved to Utah in 2003 to pursue her Bachelor of Science degree from Brigham Young University in Sociology and International Development, focusing on international women’s health. She received her doula training from Melissa Chappell in 2005, after which she lived in India for six months researching birth and breastfeeding practices as part of a field study program. Her experience in India shaped her life, putting her on the path to pursue midwifery at the Midwives College of Utah in 2013. Sara also received her CLE (certified lactation educator) certification from UC San Diego in 2012. She is a cofounder of The Briana Project, a nonprofit that provides care throughout the childbearing year to homeless, refugee, and underserved women throughout Northern Utah. Sara lives in Salt Lake City with her cat, Penelope, and is the proud aunt to eighteen nieces and nephews.


Birth In African Cultures

By: Marilyn Sorensen

This year marks my third year living in Narok, Kenya, Africa. A place that has become the source of many awakenings for me. Including immersing myself back into the wonderful world of birth.

Last year at this exact time, I had the opportunity to go to a local hospital with a midwife friend of mine, who was visiting from Idaho for a few weeks. This gave me the chance to witness first hand what is happening with Kenyan moms during their birthing times.

My experience of “Do Not Fix What Isn’t’ Broken” gave me great pause. For years as a doula I was a fierce supporter of women being the best authority on their body, their baby, their family. No matter where I am in the world, my path seems to always lead me to projects that continue to support that belief.

One of the things I have noticed in African nations is their desire to evolve to the Western Way. Unfortunately, the Western Way is not necessarily the right way when it comes to birth.

Inductions, keeping moms sedentary in beds, interventions and c-sections are the way of the Western World—practices that African nations believe must be the way to do things, since the U.S. is such a successful, highly developed country.

Oh please, don’t fix what isn’t broken. For centuries African women have been gathering together to support their sisters, daughters, and friends during their pregnancy and especially during and after their births.

The tribal and village mentality is a large part of what made me fall in love with the culture of Kenya. It is what I now believe is missing in the Western culture when it comes to births. Sure we are great at planning baby showers, giving our opinion on how to decorate the nursery, and what items to add to your baby registry. Yet, our village, our tribe, our sisterhood is often missing.

When women in Kenya are giving birth it is usually with a female midwife or a female gynecologist. These days mostly in hospitals. The government has incentive programs to encourage women to travel to hospitals for birth. Programs that also seem to encourage c-sections. Of course we are always grateful for the medical procedures, when they are truly needed. Yet having options for births outside of a hospital setting are also just as important.

The traditional Maasai midwives in the county of Narok, where I live, are increasingly vilified. The younger generations are told they are not safe, they are not educated, it is too risky to give birth with them, “your baby could die with them!”

There are 43 tribes in Kenya. The Maasai tribe is one of the most remote tribes left on the planet. They practice their traditions on a daily basis, thus capturing the curiosity of people around the world, who come to meet them, learn from them and of course photograph them.

While my friend Kimberly Palmer was visiting, I had the honor and privilege of gathering many Maasai midwives and interviewing them. I had a sneaking suspicion these highly qualified women were experiencing the witch hunts American midwives had so many years ago.

We asked them (with the assistance of a translator) what they did if a mama was bleeding too much, if a baby arrived and wasn’t breathing, how they took care of umbilical cords, how they were compensated for attending births, how far they had to travel to get to a mother in her birthing time, and hours more questions that came to mind.

Yes, some of those old wives tales you have heard are true. Pinch a piece of placenta off and put in the mother’s cheek to stop bleeding. These strong women often walk, 8, 10 or more miles to get to a birthing mama. If a baby wasn’t breathing they may dunk it quickly in a basin of water to shock them in to breathing. They can be compensated with livestock, hand beaded jewelry, clothing or cash.

Most importantly, they have decades of hands on experience, catching hundreds of babies. Wisdom passed on to them by centuries of midwives that came before them.

Of course the birthing mama and their new babe are also being attended to by their sisters, mothers, aunties and neighbors. Her doulas. All women here serve every woman here.

When a baby is born, this new little love is not just your child, he is OUR child. The tribe, community and village take full ownership for this new member of the family. They want to bless the baby, protect it and be a part of raising them.

In the Maasai tribe, a goat, sheep or cow would be prepared to celebrate the new member of the family. The meat would be roasted. The new mother would have fresh blood from the animal consumed and fat given to her to prepare her for lactation.

Now this may seem very foreign for you in your culture. However, the intention is the same—to take care of you.

They want to make sure you are healthy and “fattening up” to breast feed. All the ladies in your life come clean your house, cook for you, clean your laundry, bring money as a gift for the baby, just generally make sure you are focused on healing and your new baby for a few months.

They sit with you and visit you so that you do not leave the house and take out your new baby for many weeks. It is a true Baby Moon time for you and your new family to enjoy this sacred bonding time.

Traditions that I have often wondered if our busy To-Do List, constant updating on social media, and “Keeping Up with the Jones” lifestyle have lost along the way.

As a new mama, who comes from Utah and lives in Kenya, I can assure you of one thing. Moms that live in a dung or mud hut near the lions, elephants and leopards, want the exact same things as moms who live in a 4500 square foot stucco homes in West Jordan, Utah.

Healthy, happy babies, who get a great education, get good jobs, become contributing members of society, who have a life they love and come home to visit their moms after they move away.

About Marilyn:

Marilyn Sorensen has never met a stranger, and loves meeting new people. She believes that the greatest lessons you learn in life are through your relationships with others. She is a former President of the UDA, as well as a former member of the board for the Midwife College of Utah. She traveled many times to Kenya before deciding to move there 3 years ago. Her passion to help women and girls led her to sponsor 4 Days for Girls Enterprises. Her vast international community rallies to support thousands of girls getting an education by providing washable sanitary kits for them. Her Soul Safaris provide epic adventures for her guests while they make magic and memories Paying it Forward with their humanitarians projects.

Birth Doulas Diversity Parents postpartum Pregnancy

On Birth, Diversity, and “The Last Man on Earth”

It was just after 8 o’clock. We finally got the kids down to sleep after a long, chaotic day, and I decided it was time to unwind with a mindless episode of The Last Man on Earth. Do you know it? In a nutshell, it’s a comedic tale of a rag-tag group of people who band together after a virus wipes out the rest of humankind. Sounds hilarious, right?

Well, in this particular episode, Carol (a pregnant, eccentric woman with lots of heart) wakes up with a look of shock on her face as she peers down at the bed in front of her. She turns to her husband, Tandy, and mutters, “we’ve got company.” The camera pans back to reveal a newborn baby contentedly wriggling on the bed in between her legs—she had given birth in her sleep without feeling anything!

Another character, Erica—an Australian woman who had given birth to her own daughter after a long, painful labor only a couple months before—seems a bit miffed that Carol didn’t have to experience any of the discomforts of labor and birth. When it’s discovered some hours later that Carol has another baby (twins?!) awaiting birth, Erica is heard wishing Carol some discomfort—“just enough to respect the process”—this time around.

Yet another character, Melissa—a woman in her prime and in a committed relationship with another survivor, Todd—has absolutely no desire to have children of her own. She and Todd later take a young boy with no surviving family members under their wing.

Why am I rambling on and on about this episode, you may be asking yourself. I guess it’s because this episode—in its funny and often wildly-inaccurate way (checking dilation with a flashlight, anyone?)—illustrates so simply the diversity present in birth experiences, family planning, and even family structure. The sharing of stories and experiences is an inevitable part of pregnancy, birth, motherhood, and womanhood. It is through sharing experiences that we are connected to women all over the world and through all ages.

I remember shortly after the death and (still)birth of my second child at almost 40 weeks gestation, I wanted so badly to talk about his birth, just as I had with my oldest (living) son. I wanted to share how I labored for just over four hours and reached deep within myself to find that primal instinct necessary to bring my son’s body into this world. I wanted to laugh with my friends about the tidal wave of amniotic fluid that soaked my midwife and husband when my waters burst while pushing. It was hilarious! But not many seemed to want to hear it—whether because they genuinely couldn’t handle the grief underlining the story, or because they were concerned it would hurt me too much, I’ll never know (though I suspect it’s probably a combination of the two).

Ashley Thalman Photography

Our diverse experiences as people are valid; they are what make us human. Just as Carol’s and Erica’s pregnancies and births differed dramatically, and Melissa’s desire to have children was not what people might expect, we all have different wants/needs/realities. Through sharing our stories and listening to the stories and experiences of people unlike ourselves, we broaden our own perspectives and paradigms shift. It is when we seek to understand, learn from, and accept others’ points of view that we all benefit.

This process of listening, sharing, growing, stretching is not always—if ever—an easy one. It requires sacrifice, determination, and willingness. It requires vulnerability and empathy. It is my hope that this column on diversity—posting the fourth week of each month—allows each of us a safe place to own our stories, and start looking outside our own life experiences, beliefs, and biases to start on a path of connectedness. As Brené Brown puts so beautifully in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, “to love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest single act of daring greatly.”

Who’s up for the challenge?