The Latino Family Center's Executive Director Rosamaria Cristello and Spanish prenatal class instructors Marcela Belin and Graciela Sarabia celebrate winning The Big Idea Challenge. Photo by David Bachman Photography.

The story of “Maria,” an immigrant working mother who lost her baby because she couldn’t afford prenatal care, tugged at the heartstrings of staffers at the Latino Family Center in Hazelwood. No pregnant woman should have to ask her neighbor how to treat abdominal pain because she lacks insurance and medical support, they felt.

So, the Family Center presented an idea at the “Big Idea Challenge,” hosted by the Pittsburgh chapter of WHAMGlobal, and won over the audience and judges. The center will use the $10,000 prize from the June 26 challenge event at the August Wilson Center to train Spanish-speaking community liaisons to educate women about their health during pregnancy and after the birth of their babies.

“Our idea is to find and train women from the community to serve as community partners, to provide culturally sensitive support,” Graciela Sarabia, a Spanish prenatal class instructor at the center, told the crowd. The Latino Family Center program would encourage breastfeeding, offer prenatal classes in Spanish and provide support to prevent a mother’s prenatal or postpartum depression.

Flor de Abril Gonzalez and Executive Director Rosemarie Cristello run the Latino Family Center booth at the August Wilson Center during The Big Idea Challenge. Photo by Sandra Tolliver.

It’s the kind of idea that Karen Feinstein had hoped Pittsburghers would rally around. Feinstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, says she loves that women will mobilize for a cause. She wants to steer some of the activism spurred by the country’s political atmosphere toward a strategy for improving women’s health and making sure everyone has equitable access to health care in Pittsburgh.

Feinstein co-founded WHAMGlobal, short for Women’s Health Activist Movement, in 2016 and announced it during a TEDx talk in Boston as a network to cultivate female leaders in health care. The “Big Idea Challenge” event in Pittsburgh, supported by the Jewish Healthcare Foundation and Heinz Family Foundation, also honored five women health activists from Pittsburgh and paid tribute to others from the past century.

“I love the idea of the celebration of activism,” says Feinstein. “This isn’t the first time women have rallied around women’s issues, but I wanted the community to come together as a group and choose an issue. There are so many excellent issues and obviously, we’re going to get started with one. Sometimes that’s all you need to start rallying people together.”

The challenge started in March with 19 video submissions from nonprofit organizations, which were narrowed to eight finalists for presentation. The audience voted by text messaging to choose the top three, and a panel of judges selected the Latino Family Center as the winning team for its innovative and actionable idea.

“This is the way things get done. Sometimes they’re organic, but sometimes you have to push,” says Pat Siger, a co-founder of Pittsburgh Race for the Cure who was honored along with co-founders Eileen Lane and Laurie Moser. Established in 1992, Pittsburgh Race for the Cure has raised more than $20 million for breast cancer treatment, screening, research and education.

WTAE-TV personality Sally Wiggin was among five Pittsburgh women honored as health activists at the WHAMGlobal event. Photo by Sandra Tolliver.

“The Jewish Healthcare Foundation certainly doesn’t rest on its laurels,” says WTAE-TV personality Sally Wiggin, who was honored for her work as spokeswomen with the foundation’s Working Hearts® initiative, which united more than 70 local organizations to improve women’s heart health.

Also honored was Kathi Elliott, executive director of Gwen’s Girls, accepting on behalf of the organization’s founder, her late mother Gwen Elliott. Gwen’s Girls empowers at-risk girls through gender-specific programs, education and experiences.

The need for attention to women’s health is pressing, says Feinstein. The United States spends close to 20 percent of its annual gross domestic product on health care, nearly twice as much as any other affluent nation, yet the country has some of the worst health outcomes related to life expectancy, chronic disease management, and child and maternal well-being. Women are vastly underrepresented in health care leadership positions.

“I do think that many of us, when we get pregnant, are very focused on the health of the infant, but women have to be focused on the health of themselves,” says Feinstein. “We will form an action group to see what policies might need to be changed, what research needs to be done, how we might educate the public, and how do we change practice.”

United Way project coordinator Michaela Lies (right) talks with Tahirih Annis-Christy of East Liberty at the FISA Foundation booth at WHAMGlobal. Photo by Sandra Tolliver.

In addition to the Latino Family Center, “Big Idea Challenge” finalists and their ideas were:

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.