LANCASTER, Pa. (WHTM) — In May of 2020, there was one Black doula in Lancaster County. Now there are 19 and counting — a result of the Diversifying Doulas Initiative of Patients R Waiting.

The Diversifying Doulas Initiative works to combat racial health disparities experienced by women of color during childbirth by training doulas of color and pairing them with expecting Black and Latinx women for free birthing assistance.

“A doula is a non-medical trained support person,” explains Amaya Langaigne, director of programs for Patients R Waiting and one of the people involved in creating the Diversifying Doulas Initiative. Doulas provide emotional, physical and educational support for pregnant individuals in all stages of pregnancy.

So far, 18 women have been trained as doulas through the Diversifying Doulas Initiative, another 18 will be trained by June of this year, and 50 women of color have been provided with free-of-charge doula services, says Langaigne.

Langaigne was a member of the first cohort of nine doulas trained through the program. Lydia Castaneda, certified birth and postpartum doula, was another.

Also a certified yoga instructor, Castaneda is passionate about holistic health and wellness, but she originally wasn’t especially interested in birth work. She had an aptitude for it, though. Three years ago, after Castaneda supported her sister through the birth of her nephew, the nurses told Castaneda that she should become a doula.

“I didn’t think anything of it,” says Castaneda, but “fast forward, Diversifying Doulas comes along, and I just fell madly in love with the work.”

Castaneda began her training with Diversifying Doulas in August, and she says the work makes her feel awe and gratitude. “I just had a birth last week, and I got in my car and just cried because I’m like, ‘I can’t believe that I get to be a part of that,'” says Castaneda.

The experience isn’t only meaningful for doulas like Castaneda; it’s also important for the people giving birth. Langaigne initially worked as a client navigator for the Diversifying Doulas Initiative, contacting mothers and helping them connect with doulas. Through that experience, she saw how passionate women were about working with a doula.

“They see the difference, and they see how impactful getting a doula is for them and for their child and for their pregnancy and for their health,” says Langaigne. “I would hear people almost get to tears talking about their previous experience without a doula, and how they’re so passionate to have found a program that’s doing it for free.”

Castaneda explains that doulas do a lot more than “just stand there,” as some people think. In her role, she educates mothers and their families about their rights as patients, their birth options, what they might experience with different birthing procedures, and even what they might experience after the birth. She also helps individuals clearly lay out their birthing plans and self-advocate, and she supports them and their families through the entire process.

The maternal mortality rate for Black women is three to four times higher than for white women. The Diversifying Doulas Initiative aims to close that gap.

“Women of color — women like me, women like my sisters, my nieces, my daughter, my dearest friends, my cousins, my mother — are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth,” says Castaneda. “Far too often and for far too long…the BIPOC community has been overlooked and dismissed in the medical world, and for me personally, I couldn’t have it anymore. I needed to be part of the solution.”

Doulas and their patients develop important personal relationships which are enhanced when they share similar backgrounds, explains Langaigne. “Training women of color to become doulas to serve women of color creates that cultural competency, that cultural congruence to make sure that these women are receiving quality care as well as care that fits their experience and empowers them to make informed decisions,” Langaigne says.

The Diversifying Doulas Initiative is not currently accepting trainees, but expecting women of color in Lancaster County who would like to work with a doula can fill out the form on Patients R Waiting’s website to receive free doula services.