Ask Jannie Harriot her claim to fame, and the Allendale resident goes straight to the numbers: eight sisters and brothers, 23 nieces and nephews, 34 great nieces and nephews, and three great-great nieces and nephews. “When people ask me my most important title, I tell them it’s Aunt Jannie,” she says.
Allendale County residents — particularly new and prospective mothers — know there’s a lot more to Harriot than her extended family tree. In a rural county, where healthcare issues are many and answers comparatively few, Harriot’s life is devoted to the health and well-being of children and families.
Harriot is Executive Director of the Allendale County First Steps Partnership, which she describes as “a school readiness program, available to all children in South Carolina.” The program solicits community input on health, educational and social needs, and facilitates creative partnerships to meet those needs.
Harriot also coordinates the annual Allendale County Baby Fair/Baby Shower, which may just be the state’s largest “educational” baby shower. Not only did this year’s participants gather up the usual goodies; they took away the gift of knowledge, as it relates to raising healthy children.
“The thing is,” says Harriot, “you can’t have children ready to learn and ready for school unless they’re healthy.”
Harriot comes by her calling naturally. After receiving her undergraduate degree in Business Education from Fayetteville State University, she taught in public schools in both Carolinas and New Jersey before returning to her native South Carolina in 1990. At that time, “With all those nieces and nephews, I realized how fortunate we were,” she says. “I was reminded that, ”To whom much is given, much is required.“ My heart just goes out to young people. So many of them just don’t have the help and support they need. They don’t have the kind of family we have. It’s up to the community to provide what’s needed.”
Harriot started to “give back” by volunteering her efforts in support of community-service programs. She wrote a proposal for a family intervention program, which eventually grew into the Healthy Start program to reduce infant mortality. By 1999, when the statewide First Steps initiative was first being discussed in Columbia, she was part of a committee that advised policy makers and legislators as to the program’s shape and form. She then helped with the program’s rollout.
It was during her time as Director of the Family Life Center in Darlington County that the idea for a community-wide Baby Shower first entered Harriot’s mind. “I was attending a shower for a family member or friend,” she recalls. “I started to wonder, just how many women who are pregnant have never had a shower. I decided, we’re going to have one here for all of those women.” Harriot brought the idea with her to Allendale. Over three years, it has grown into an educational event and opportunity for pre-conceptual and pregnant women and mothers of infant children. Seventy-five women registered for the program in April. The message they heard emphasized good decision-making, empowerment and prevention.
”We tell them, it’s important to take care of your health before you become pregnant, while you’re pregnant, and after you have that baby,” Harriot says. “Then, you take care of your baby’s health, too. With pre-conceptual women, we talk about the importance of taking folic acid, and being selective with your partners to protect against sexually transmitted diseases. We work to make sure they understand nutrition, both theirs and their baby’s, because what we eat is who we are. We tell them how important it is to make pre-natal and post-natal visits to the doctor, and not to forget well-baby visits. The thing that really resonates with us is that these children being born are children we want to be healthy, happy and successful at school.”
It’s a powerful message, and one that has found many civic-minded supporters. Among those who have funded Harriot’s efforts are Low Country Healthy Start, the March of Dimes, the Sunshine Foundation and Westinghouse Savannah River Company.
“It takes partnerships at all levels to address these issues because they’re very complicated,” Harriot says. “There is no single answer to all of the issues we face. I think we’re at a point when we need to get a whole new generation of young people to understand the importance of their health before they have children.”