A decade since its creation, Giving Austin Labor Support seeks to expand its services to address vulnerable maternal populations.
By Anna Lassmann, Photo courtesy of Morgan Miles
The first childbirth Morgan Miles ever attended was in 2013 as a newly oriented volunteer with Giving Austin Labor Support. Miles says the mom was Spanish-speaking and needed extra support during the labor and delivery of her third child.
“It was just so beautiful and amazing,” Miles says. “I won’t ever forget that she reached over afterwards and grabbed my hand and said, ‘Please help other women give birth and feel their power.’ ”
Shortly after this experience, Miles became the volunteer coordinator and then executive director for GALS, a local nonprofit that began as a grassroots organization about a decade ago to ensure no woman gives birth alone. GALS has since expanded from solely an on-call program to include a partnership with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office and to provide prenatal support as well.
‘Women can make the best choices for themselves.’
At any time, GALS has as many as 75 volunteers. Some of these volunteers come to the nonprofit already trained as doulas, while others are simply interested in helping women. All volunteers for GALS go through a six-hour orientationto cover a range of topics, from what on-call labor support looks like to cultural competency.
These trained volunteers are then on call 24/7, 365 days a year. If a woman is in labor at a local hospital and the nurses and hospital staff feel she might need additional support, they can call GALS to request a volunteer.
“GALS is…the perfect example of this group of people who give up time in their day to be on call, to serve these families, to go to them when they are alone or are vulnerable and just sit there and remind them that, ‘You got this. You are powerful,’ ” Miles says, “to be the person in the room that is focusing only on them and not the baby.”
GALS has added an additional program, the Prenatal Doula Program, which pairs a trained doula volunteer with a soon-to-be mother. In this program, the doula has two prenatal visits with the mother so they can get comfortable with each other and the doula can learn the mother’s birth preferences. That same doula is then on call for the mother when she goes into labor and provides an at-home postpartum visit. To enroll in this program, an expectant mother must apply and answer information about her pregnancy and income.
Miles says both these programs are necessary to help women have an empowered birth and successful transition to motherhood.
“The biggest thing that I’ve realized is that as people with uteruses, we are given different opportunities in the world, and a lot of times, people tend to think of pregnancy and birth as a sickness,” Miles says. “The system in place is designed to keep women down, to give birth in this way that may not be natural or make them believe that their body isn’t powerful and capable of giving birth however they want to. And women can make the best choices for themselves, if given the opportunity.”
‘Every person deserves this support if they want it.’
Since the creation of GALS, volunteers have periodically been called into hospitals to provide support to incarcerated women.
“We had done a couple of births with [incarcerated] moms—and this was before it was illegal to have women shackled to the bed the whole time—so women were asked to give birth and were not able to leave the bed and were treated sometimes subpar by people,” Miles says.
It wasn’t until 2013 that a formal partnership was forged between GALS and the Travis County Sheriff’s Office.
“It took a long time [and] many talks to get approved to go into the jail and to be able to provide this support,” Miles says. “We had to teach them what a doula does…[and] how every person deserves this. Just because a person is incarcerated doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to have an empowered birth experience. It’s that hurdle of continuing to punish them, that kind of mindset, that we have to get over and help guide people through that process and say, ‘Every person deserves this support if they want it.’ ”
Last year, the partnership between the Travis County Sheriff’s Office and GALS expanded to include monthly support groups and a postpartum visit. During these support groups, specially trained GALS volunteers go to the jail and provide fresh fruits and vegetables and have conversations with the pregnant prisoners about the struggles of pregnancy and birth while incarcerated. When these women go into labor, a GALS volunteer is notified by hospital staff and they provide support through the entire labor and delivery.
“It’s been great. It’s been great for the community to get in there and love on these mamas, who are just like everyone else,” Miles says. “They are just wearing different clothes and awaiting trial.”
‘We need be focusing on maternal health care.’
According to the United Health Foundation, there were approximately 21 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in the United States in 2018. This number rose slightly from 2016, in which there were approximately 20 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.
“The reality of the United States at the moment is that we need be focusing on maternal health care and we need to be thinking about all the different ways we can address the issues of maternal mortality and morbidity, and one of those is by having birth support,” Miles says.
In 2018, GALS served 86 families, the most the group has supported since its creation in 2008. Thirty of those births happened with the help of the GALS on-call program. Miles says she hopes to expand that number going forward.
“We have people on call 365 days of the year, so we should’ve been able to go to a lot more births,” Miles says. “I know that there are women who need help and would like our services, so it’s just a matter of really making sure people know about us and can call us and hospital staff and nurses are recognizing when people could use a GALS volunteer.”