CHICAGO — AT 10:30 on a cold and rainy morning, there is no heat in 19-year-old Kreda James's apartment. Her eight-month-old son, sitting in his stroller in front of a TV game show, is dressed in overalls, a heavy red sweater, and a knitted wool hat. Virginia Washington, a visiting nurse, taps the radiator. ``I'm really concerned about the heat,'' she tells Ms. James. Then, looking at the ceiling, she adds, ``I notice you have some peeling paint. If the baby starts to eat paint chips, he could get lead poisoning.''
Peeling paint and cold radiators are only two of the challenges James faces. Young, poor, and inexperienced with babies, she admits she ``didn't think it would be this bad. Not really bad, but you have to spend a lot of time with a baby, and I didn't think it would be like that.''
To help her, Ms. Washington and Joshuette Gardner, a community aide, come periodically as part of program based at the University of Illinois Hospital to reduce the infant mortality rate in Chicago, which is one of the highest in the nation. Called REACH, an acronym for Resources, Education, and Care in the Home, the program began in October under a grant from the US Department of Health and Human Services.
While Ms. Washington gives the baby a checkup, Ms. Gardner talks to his mother. When James explains that the infant is not yet eating solid foods, Ms. Gardner emphasizes the importance of good nutrition. She also encourages James to take her son out occasionally to visit friends.
James's chilly apartment is the third stop this morning for Washington and Gardner, who spend four days a week calling on families, mostly single mothers, whose babies are considered ``at risk.''
``Sometimes it's just a matter of listening,'' Washington says. ``They may feel nobody cares about them.''
A few miles away, listening and caring figure in another parent-training effort, this one funded by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. In an eighth-floor office at Garfield Counseling Center, five young mothers have gathered on a Monday morning with a common need: freedom from drug addiction.
Two of the women are pregnant. Three have babies under six months of age, one of whom, two-month-old Shaunice Blandin, sleeps in her mother's arms.
When Shaunice was born three months premature, tests revealed a trace of drugs in her system. Her mother, Angela Blandin, was subpoenaed.
``One lady in court started talking about custody for Shaunice,'' Ms. Blandin recalls. ``A social worker went through my background. She could see I was not a bad person. They told me to participate in some counseling. I cried many nights because I knew I was wrong. I asked God to forgive me, and that she'd be OK. She came out great. Now I'm going to take care of her with all my heart.''
As Georgia Smith, an administrator at the center, explains, ``If we can keep these families together, maybe this will enable the mothers to stop and say, `If I can be drug free, there's no limit to what I can do.'''