Savannah Guilty asks questions during the first day of the Baby University program in Clarksdale, Miss., Monday, April 3, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Destiny Miles of Clarksdale felt more alone than ever.

She was pregnant. She had just ended a toxic relationship with the baby’s father. And she felt lost about the idea of parenting. 

“At the beginning of my pregnancy, I was very depressed,” said Miles, 22. “Knowing I had to be a single mom, it took a toll on me for a minute.” 

She was scrolling Facebook when she stumbled upon parenting classes under the name “Baby U.” That’s how she met Chelesa Presley, who not only changed her outlook on parenting and motherhood, but her life. 

“I feel like Miss Presley helped me more than family,” said Miles, who is now eight months pregnant.

Presley is the director of Clarksdale Baby University – often called ‘Baby U’ – a free eight-week parenting class for families with children under 3 years old in the Delta, the most rural region of the state. 

Families in Clarksdale are often trying to make do with less. Nearly 42% of its residents live in poverty, and the median household income is about $30,700 per year, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Coahoma County and the Delta at large have rates of teen pregnancy that surpass the national average.

Chelesa Presley, director of Baby University, poses for a portrait in Clarksdale, Miss., Monday, April 3, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

In a region that’s already spread out and lacking resources, Baby U has provided a stable community for new parents since 2014. But during the pandemic, a lot of the personal touches of the program were strained because classes were online only.

The program only started back in-person at the beginning of this year, and Miles was in that cohort. The appetite for in-person, hands-on instruction was obvious, according to Presley. This last session of 15 families was the first time ever that everyone who started the program on day one made it to each class and to graduation. 

“What this class provides, a lot of families in the Delta do not get,” Presley said. “It’s nonjudgmental parenting support. A lot of (other) programs come from a model – whether they realize it or not – that the parents are deficient.” 

Presley said parenting classes can often take an approach of “what’s wrong with you” rather than “let’s support you on your parenting journey to have the best outcome for every child.” 

Graduates have told Presley the class made them feel valued, and that they needed to learn, but weren’t a bad parent. They needed that affirmation.

Miles went into the classes feeling like she wasn’t ready to be a mom. She doesn’t feel like that anymore.

She has learned about safe sleep, breastfeeding, childhood brain development, nutrition, and how to appropriately discipline – rather than just punish – a child. 

Baby U is part of Clarksdale-based nonprofit Spring Initiative, which is funded by donations and grants. Spring Initiative aims to help children in the Delta succeed in school and life. Baby U specifically gets the bulk of its support from the Coahoma County Early Learning Collaborative, which receives money from a state pre-K tax credit program. 

Bianca Zaharescu, the CEO of Spring Initiative, said Baby U is different from most of its other programs because it’s not following children from pre-K to graduation, but helping build a foundation before the child reaches the classroom. 

“Participants feel so much it’s a safe space where they can really share and talk personally and openly,”  Zaharescu said. “It’s not like throwing a bunch of information at parents, it’s a communal relationship-based space where you can explore together. It’s about enjoying parenthood.” 

Expecting mothers participate in an Easter egg hunt during the first day of the Baby University program in Clarksdale, Miss., Monday, April 3, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Parents who already have young children were able to bring them to the class. That helped future parents like Miles see parent-child dynamics at work.

They even practiced reading stories aloud. Miles has continued reading to her belly at home, as she waits for her quickly approaching due date.

When she gives birth, Presley will visit Miles in the hospital and put a special “Baby U” hang tag on her door, a beloved tradition. During the class, Presley also does home visits with each family participating. She does follow-ups months later.

The Delta has a shortage of pediatricians, so Presley steps in where she can. She’s trained to do development screenings to make sure Baby U babies are hitting milestones and helps families access specialists if needed.

She’s also an intermediary for mental health needs. She checks with new mothers to make sure they’re not experiencing postpartum depression. If they are, she knows how to get them in touch with the help they need.  

More than 77% of Coahoma County is Black and so are most of Presley’s students. Mississippi is known for being one of the worst states for racial health outcome disparities. So, Presley steps up in hopes of guiding new mothers and their kids away from any pitfalls.

Presley has been with the program since 2014 and took over as its director in 2018. She fills gaps and acts as a lifeline many families struggling with finances and health care access wouldn’t have otherwise.

She removes all the barriers she can to get people inside her lime-green classroom on C. Ritchie Avenue. No car? Someone will pick you up. The program provides a full dinner for the participants and their young children when they meet every Monday night over the eight-week session – a draw in itself. 

Chelesa Presley, director of Baby University, talks to expecting mothers and their supporters about parenting styles during the first day of the Baby University program in Clarksdale, Miss., Monday, April 3, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

“We talk about life and actual practical things in their life,” Presley said. “My whole thing is, if the mom is not well or the dad is not well, they can’t expect the child to be well.”

Presley said she’s always working to enlist fathers to attend the program – and she makes sure the ones who do participate understand the active role they should have in parenting, even during their partner’s pregnancy. 

Miles says friends who once judged her for seeking out parenting classes are asking how they can get involved. 

“I told myself if you get in that class, you learn,” Miles said. “You’re not just coming for the free Pampers.”

Now as a proud graduate, Miles gives her friends the same advice: to join and be ready to engage.

She wants to keep in touch with her classmates, a group of like-minded and supportive parents who have become part of a community network she didn’t have just over two months ago.

At the beginning of April, a new eight-week session began. 

A handful of mothers, mostly under 25, filed into folding chairs. At first, the group was quiet and reserved. 

But Presley is an expert at getting her new classes to open up. Her energy is contagious, even as she asks for each parent to introduce themselves – a game including paper airplanes – or speaks about what to expect in the third trimester.

Soon there was chatter, smiles and the beginnings of a budding support network for another  group of young parents.

Mississippi Today photographer Eric Shelton contributed to this report.

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