SOUTH EGREMONT — When Hinda Bodinger thought about ways she could make first-time moms feel welcome in the greater Berkshire community, she decided to think inside the box.
"Under the best circumstances, being a new parent can be really hard, and really isolating," Bodinger said.
So she decided to do something — even something small, at first — to help. What she didn't know in January, when she first developed the idea for giving away Berkshire Baby Boxes — a box filled with newborn care essentials that can also be used as a safe spot for babies to sleep — was that it would grow into a countywide program before it turned a year old.
Fueled by her distaste and growing dismay over the current national political rhetoric surrounding immigrants in this country, Bodinger said she first set out thinking up specific ideas that could help the local immigrant population and low-income families. Helping new families seemed like the perfect idea, she said.
"I wanted people to know they're not in this alone," said the mom of two grown children. "Imagine being here and being told you're not supposed to be here?"
She had heard of baby boxes before and decided to do a Google search. What she found was the Baby Box Co. and an entire community that launched her and her husband, Bill Bodinger, into creating a nonprofit organization that they run entirely out of their quiet South Egremont home.
"It's a lot of work, but it's working," she said, standing next to the cardboard box that started it all. So far, she's given away 34 boxes. She was recently notified by the Baby Box Co., that the company will fund a countywide program, sending her 1,500 empty boxes in November to fill and distribute to any new mom in the county.
The Baby Box Co. manufactures and sells the boxes, which comply with ASTM, CPSC, Health Canada and EN requirements for safe-infant sleeping.
The boxes are based on Finland's successful program, which the country began in the 1930s as a low-cost way to provide all babies a safe place to sleep along with requiring that new moms see a doctor in the first four months after giving birth. Because of this, The New York Times reports, Finland now has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world — 2.52 for every 1,000 births, less than half that of the United States.
A box may seem like an odd place for cuddly newborn to sleep, but its no-frills comfort is safe and effective, coinciding with the safe-sleeping practices recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Each box is fitted with a firm mattress and fitted sheet, as well as information regarding how your baby should sleep — on his/her back with no toys, pillows or blankets.
It's the education that comes with each free box, Bodinger said, that is key to its success, which is becoming an international trend. Each box is equipped with essential items — such as a newborn health kit, Halo Sleep Sacks, baby mittens and bibs, diapers washcloths and bath soap — and pamphlets promoting safe sleep and newborn care.
After starting the company with her own family's seed money, Bodinger set out to connect with local family agencies to get the boxes into the hands of those who need it the most in Berkshire County. Through the Baby Box Co., Bodinger was connected with another Berkshire County resident who had expressed interest in getting the program here.
"I'd been talking with the company on and off for about a year, trying to figure out funding," said Amy Hall, program director of The Family Center at Child Care of the Berkshires in North Adams. "Then out of the blue, Hinda called me. She's amazing, she took this idea and just ran with it."
With the help of an advisory board made up of local family advocates, such as Hall, and medical staff, a workshop was created to get first-time parents information they need and the Berkshire Baby Box.
"People are craving information in the last trimester," said Hall, who hosted a two-hour workshop in June for 10 families who walked away with the box, new friendships and a better understanding of what was about to happen. "I like the idea that every baby has access to the basic essentials they need, and safe sleep is really important. A lot of people are unaware that things have changed."
The required workshops that come with the box are what make the program work so well, said Linda Baxter, a certified nurse-midwife with a long career in Berkshire County and in Brooklyn, N.Y. and Berkshire Baby Box board member.
"I was very aware in my practice how so many women moving here had no social support network, not even good friends around to help them," Baxter said. "I was seeing a lot of postpartum depression because of isolation. The box is connecting women to where they can get support."
Feedback from box recipients has been positive, according the Hall, who will be hosting another workshop on Sept. 13, along with "reunion" classes to get the new parents together again to check in. Classes have also been held in Great Barrington with CHP's Family Services division.
First-time mom Molly Frasca, of Great Barrington, said she was skeptical at first when she heard about the box in June during CHP's workshop. But now, she said, she uses it whenever she travels to see her family.
"It's a really neat idea, you can take it wherever you go. And she loves it," said Frasca of her 1-month-old daughter Leah, who just recently got her days and nights figured out. "She actually likes it more than the bassinet. I still can't get her to sleep in her bassinet. I think the box feels like the walls are around her, it's probably familiar to her from when she was inside me."
When asked about the essentials in the box, Frasca quickly replied, "I've used them all."
Standing in her basement, next to racks filled with diapers, bins filled with bibs and sleep sacks and a stack of baby books, Bodinger points to the pile of sanitary pads — put in the box for postpartum moms — she got on sale. Each baby box, including its contents, is worth about $250, according to Bodinger, who raises funds through donations, events and grant-writing. The effort meant to create a community, is also being supported by the community. She points to a stack of "Goodnight Moon" books, donated by The Bookloft in Great Barrington, and the rubber ducks that warn if your bath water is too hot, donated by the Kiwanis Club.
Some of the boxes have also made it into the hands of moms in situations where they suddenly have nothing for their babies, said Hall, who recently called Bodinger and asked for a box.
"When they call and say someone is in need, I immediately say 'yes,' " Bodinger said.
She said she's still working out how she's going to distribute the boxes countywide when the 1,500 free ones are delivered to her house, but she knows she doesn't want to lose "the personal component."
"For me, this is much more about the community we're creating," she said, "I want parents to know they're not in this alone."
HOW TO GET A BOX:
• Sept. 13: Baby Care Workshop in North Adams. Child Care of the Berkshires, 210 State St., from 6 to 8 p.m. For women and their partners in their last trimester, priority given to first-time parents. Free. Registration required. Call the Family Center at 413-664-4821
• Sept. 26: Baby Care Workshop in Great Barrington. CHP, 442 Stockbridge Road, 1:30 p.m. Call 413-644-0104 ext. 1160 or email email@example.com to register. CHP is planning to hold monthly workshops (the last Monday of each month), so if you cannot make this one, please call or email to sign up for a future program.
How to help:
While many people would like to donate items, Hinda Bodinger, founder of Berkshire Baby Box, said funding is what is most needed.
• To make a donation, or to find out more about the project, visit www.berkshirebabybox.org
• For more information on the Baby Box Co., visit www.babyboxco.com