Every time Laquita sees her 18-month old daughter Marissa walk, snuggle a toy, or say “Mama,” she can’t help but smile and soak it all in. Laquita says these are the precious moments that come with the joys of new motherhood.

But for this 23-year-old single Milwaukee mom, these moments are also miraculous milestones she didn’t think would happen for her first child.

Laquita’s due date wasn’t until October, but she delivered Marissa via emergency cesarean at just 29 weeks that August. Marissa was born weighing less than three pounds. She was also diagnosed with a rare birth defect called Amniotic Band Syndrome.

“Marissa lost her middle finger on her right hand and also has a deformed ring finger,” said Laquita. An amniotic band also wrapped around Marissa’s left leg. “I remember the doctors telling me my daughter may not ever learn to walk.”

While still in the hospital, Laquita was introduced to Jackie Dickinson, an Aurora Family Services case manager with the ’Healthy Next Babies‘ program (funded by United Way’s Healthy Birth Outcomes Initiative).

“In alignment with the work of Milwaukee Lifecourse Initiative for Healthy Families, the ’Healthy Next Babies‘ program addresses infant mortality by providing women like Laquita with access to quality care tailored to her needs as a young mother with an adverse birth outcome,” said Bailey Murph, Health Portfolio Manager at United Way. “Through United Way’s partnership with Aurora Family Services, Laquita was connected with Jackie, who provided one-on-one education and care to help Laquita and Marissa thrive as a young family.”

One of the first things Jackie taught Laquita was the important health benefits of breastfeeding a premature baby. “They ordered me a pump, showed me how to use it, and I immediately started pumping in the hospital,” Laquita said. Laquita was released a couple days later, but Marissa needed to remain in neonatal intensive care unit until she weighed at least four pounds.

Laquita pumped every day and brought her milk to the hospital to feed her daughter. After 90 days, Marissa was finally strong enough to go home. Excited to be reunited with her daughter, Laquita admitted she was worried about the transition.

“Just seeing my daughter so small was scary to me,” said Laquita. “I worried that I wouldn’t be able to do this on my own. I’m so happy Miss Jackie was there for support.”

The Healthy Next Babies program provides new moms with the resources to support positive health for both them and their child, with weekly wellness home visitations.

“I was so proud that Laquita had lots of questions during our home visits,” said Jackie. “We’d also check and make sure Marissa was meeting her developmental milestones and that her motor skills were improving.”

The following year Marissa had two surgeries to fix the band around her leg and also celebrated another big milestone, her first birthday.

“We had balloons, cake, and plenty of presents,” said Laquita.

“We are so thankful to United Way for helping us provide a program that supports young moms like Laquita, ensuring more babies like Marissa will continue to beat the odds and grow up healthy and strong,” said Jackie.

Last year, each and every mom in the Aurora ‘Healthy Next Babies’ program were educated on the benefits of breastfeeding and referred to a parenting program .

Today, the happy and curious 18-month-old Marissa keeps her full-time working mom busy. “She loves to run all over the place. She is a very determined little girl!” said Laquita.

When she’s not walking or running after her toddler, Laquita also serves as a role model to other new moms who are part of the ’Healthy Next Babies ‘program.

“I enjoy sharing my experience with them and telling them about the benefits of breastfeeding and how it helped my little girl,” said Laquita.

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