PEORIA — CenteringPregnancy, a support group aimed at eliminating disparities among mothers-to-be, has seen some really awesome results in cities around the U.S.

“There is a big disparity between black and white women when it comes to the preterm birth rate. CenteringPregnancy nullified that disparity,” said Dr. Rahmat Na-Allah, director of the Family Medicine Obstetrics Fellowship at University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria

The fellowship provides obstetric services at Heartland Health Services-Carver, where the program was recently adopted.

Numerous studies have been done on the program, which grew out of a health care model created by a nurse in 1990.

CenteringPregnancy brings together women with similar due dates to learn about a variety of pregnancy-related issues. Hour-and-a-half-long sessions begin in the fourth month of pregnancy and become more frequent as the women get closer to their due dates.

The sessions allow moms and providers to relax and get to know each other. Many form lasting relationships from a connection not possible with traditional care.

The first session of CenteringPregnancy in Peoria began last December at Heartland Health Services-Carver.

“It was awesome to learn about all the steps you go through when you are pregnant,” Regina Benson, 27, said while sitting in the South Peoria home she shares with her husband, James Ogle, and their 3-month old daughter, Jamilee. “You can talk about what you are going through and the other girls can open up about what they are going through.”

Benson was one of three women who participated in Peoria’s inaugural CenteringPregnancy.

Although Jamilee was born one day premature because of preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure, both mother and daughter are doing well. The other participants also had good outcomes.

The program empowers women by giving them the knowledge to make good healthcare decisions. It also provides support to women who might not have it at home.

“A lot of times during pregnancy, women find themselves not having a lot of support,” said Dr. Jeree Frost, a family medicine resident at Heartland Health and facilitator of the current CenteringPregnancy group. “Maybe they are not with their baby’s father, or things might be rocky at home.”

The program is open to women of all ages, even if it's not their first pregnancy. An experienced mom can add a lot to the group, but the support is important no matter what the mother’s experience level or age.

“Our last group had an older mom with gestational diabetes,” said Na’Allah. “She became friends with a younger woman in the group. She later told the young woman that she took care of herself because she didn't want to disappoint her friend.”

CenteringPregnancy is part of the plan the Partnership for a Healthy Community has formulated to reduce health disparities in Peoria County, said Na’Allah. Black women in Peoria have a preterm birth rate of 13 percent vs. 7.2 for white women.

CenteringPregnancy is receiving significant support locally. Organizers recently applied for a pair of $10,000 grants with the hope they would get one. They were delighted when they were awarded both, said Na'Allah.

“We now have enough money to start one at the UnityPoint Health family medical center on Main Street,” she said. “It will have the maximum effect if we can get more pregnant women enrolled.”

That program will begin in December.

The second session at Heartland Health-Carver began in mid-summer. First-time mom Janea Harris, 17, was the only one of the three participants who showed up for class last week. She played learning games with Frost and co-facilitator Clara Manzano while munching on free snacks.

“Write a question about pregnancy on a piece of paper, crumple it up and throw it in the middle of the room,” said Frost.

During the course of the game, Frost was able to work in a key piece of advice gleaned from her own experience. Frost’s first pregnancy ended tragically.

“Back pain can be a sign of preterm labor,” she said. “If you are ever having more pain than usual, get checked out immediately.”

Frost told the story of how, as a 20-year-old living in rural Oklahoma, she went into labor at 24 weeks. While it didn’t feel like she thought labor should feel, it was bad enough for Frost to go to her doctor.

He sent her home saying that backache is common in pregnant women. If he had given her different advice, the child likely would have lived, she said.

“They can stop it if you catch it soon enough,” she said. “When your water breaks, it’s too late.”

CenteringPregnancy sessions are more about conversation than lecture. A discussion about breastfeeding prompted visitor Michelle Sanders, community outreach manager for Heartland Health, to talk about her own experiences. She didn’t breastfeed until her last child.

“And she never gets sick,” Sanders said.

The story seemed to have an effect on Harris, who said she wasn’t sure about breastfeeding.

“It definitely works,” said Frost after talking about how breast milk adapts to the infant’s needs. “It definitely makes their immune system better.”

After class Harris said she learned about CenteringPregnancy during a prenatal visit at Heartland Health. Because it’s her first pregnancy, she is interested in the educational aspect of the class, but camaraderie is important, too.

“It’s really scary being pregnant for the first time," Harris said. "It’s good to have a support group.”

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.