Thirteen-year-old Jeremy Thicklin is on a mission to teach his friends how to prevent African-American babies from dying.
The slender eighth-grader at Roosevelt Middle School was one of 212 volunteers who graduated Saturday from Community Voice, a five-week program teaching them how diet, exercise and behavior can reduce the high death rate among African-American infants. African-American babies die more than twice as often before their first birthday as do non-Hispanic whites, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"I learned about the dangers of domestic violence. I learned it's important for the mother to eat folic acid. I'm going to tell my friends at school," said the West Palm Beach resident, one of the youngest in the class.
Community Voice, which started this year, is part of the education program funded with about $200,000 from the Department of Health and $75,000 from the Palm Beach County Children's Services Council. Students — the oldest is 76 — take a five-week class taught by three program instructors. About one-fifth of the graduates are men, said William Cooper Jr., Community Voice program director.
"It's not just girls. Guys need to know about this stuff too," said Leo Sanders, deacon at South Olive Baptist Church in Riviera Beach and the oldest graduate. "When I'm at barber shops, high school football games, the supermarket, I'm spreading the word about how to prevent babies from dying in cribs and how dangerous it is to be around smoking and drinking during pregnancy."
The high death rate among African-Americans is not an economic problem, said featured speaker Tonya Lewis Lee, a children's activist who produced "Crises in the Crib: Saving Our Nation's Babies."
"A well-to-do African-American woman is more likely to have her baby die than a poor white woman. The reasons vary from diet, exercise, stress and lack of access to prenatal care. We are trying to build a movement to change that," said Lee, who is married to producer Spike Lee.
The graduating students are expected to go out in their communities tell their friends what they have learned, said Cooper. The program now is in West Palm Beach, Riviera Beach and the Glades. Plans call for expanding next year into Delray Beach and Boynton Beach, said Cooper.
"We can't come on real strong or we will turn people off. These are sensitive issues," said graduate David Dampier, 64.