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Doula who found calling early in life makes documentary about child birth in Vermont

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    Jess Kimball, of Springfield, Vt., shadow boxes during a workout as owner Maria Kritikos' dog Cannoli watches at Baan Muay Thai Academy in Lebanon, N.H., on July 19, 2021. Kimball, who is a postpartum doula, said she signed up for self-defense classes at the school in November because she walks through dark hospital parking lots for her job. A documentary Kimball produced this winter, "The Vermont Birth Experience," a compilation of interviews with midwives, doulas, parents, researchers and others involved with birth in the state is available on YouTube. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news — Geoff Hansen

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    Jess Kimball, of Springfield, Vt., does a pad workout with coach Anthony Alvarenga, of Enfield, N.H., at Baan Muay Thai Academy in Lebanon, N.H., on July 19, 2021. Kimball, who is a postpartum doula, said she enjoys the twice-weekly workouts for their stress relief. "When I leave here, I feel empowered," she said. A documentary Kimball produced this winter, "The Vermont Birth Experience," a compilation of interviews with midwives, doulas, parents, researchers and others involved with birth in the state is available on YouTube. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news — Geoff Hansen

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    Jess Kimball, of Springfield, Vt., uses a sledgehammer to hit a tire during a strength and conditioning core workout at Baan Muay Thai Academy in Lebanon, N.H., on July 19, 2021. Kimball, who is a postpartum doula, said she enjoys the twice-weekly workouts for their stress relief. "When I leave here, I feel empowered," she said. A documentary Kimball produced this winter, "The Vermont Birth Experience," a compilation of interviews with midwives, doulas, parents, researchers and others involved with birth in the state is available on YouTube (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/19/2021 9:53:29 PM
Modified: 7/19/2021 9:53:32 PM

SPRINGFIELD, Vt. — Jess Kimball was 16 when she graduated high school and launched a career as a doula, helping parents welcome their newborn children and then assisting them in the early days of parenting.

Now 20, Kimball, a Springfield, Vt. resident, has a book out, My Pseudo-College Experience published in May by Virginia-based Mascot Books, about auditing classes at Dartmouth College, which it so happens her great-grandfather attended in the 1930s. A documentary she produced this winter, The Vermont Birth Experience, a compilation of interviews with midwives, doulas, parents, researchers and others involved with birth in the state, is available on YouTube.

But she’s not stopping there. She’s writing a second book — about dating and falling in love — as she prepares to begin what she expects will be a six-year process of becoming a certified nurse-midwife starting this fall with classes at Claremont-based River Valley Community College.

“I wanted a wider scope of what I could do,” she said.

Kimball is the fourth of seven siblings and grew up partly in Connecticut before moving to South Carolina at age 6 after doctors said one of her sister’s lungs would benefit from a southern climate.

She was drawn to assisting with childbirth and supporting parents in part because she saw her mother’s experience raising her children at a distance from her previous support network in New England. It also stemmed in part from Kimball’s own experience with fertility treatments and miscarriage.

“I felt like people keep saying it takes a village to raise a baby,” she said. “It takes a village just to exist as a human being. That village wasn’t really there.”

To further her training after high school, Kimball traveled to France and Hawaii, interning with doulas and midwives along the way.

“Always knew I wanted to come to Vermont,” Kimball said. Her grandparents had retired to Springfield and “it’s beautiful up here,” she said.

She first landed in Hanover in 2017, but only committed to staying in the Upper Valley, or its outskirts, in May of 2019. She was sitting at a red light in front of the Hanover Inn, coming off a night shift working to help one family with an infant, and preparing to meet with another when she felt “this feeling wash over me that I was finally home.”

Around that time, at a friend’s suggestion, Kimball audited a health disparities class at Dartmouth, which she said, “sparked a passion inside of me.”

In addition to providing fodder for her book, which includes an exploration of Greek life, party culture, course loads and student stereotypes, the course work has inspired her to work toward expanding access to doula services.

“Everybody should have an equal opportunity when it comes to going back to work,” she said.

Her services include overnight newborn care, which begins at a rate of $40 per hour, as well as postpartum support including meal preparation, grocery runs, breastfeeding support, baby holding, bottle cleaning and laundry, starting at $42 per hour. She also offers family and birth photography, as well as sleep coaching.

But, ultimately she hopes that doula services will be covered by health insurance or employers. She also has worked with a nonprofit to accept donations to support the cost for families and some have listed her services on their baby registries, she said. At no cost, she said she’ll help low-income families craft a sleep plan.

Quechee resident Erin Altenburger, a 33-year-old mother of 13-week-old Amelia Forster, sought out Kimball’s overnight and postpartum care services.

Altenburger has bipolar disorder and said that lack of sleep could trigger a relapse. Her insurance company, Cigna, covered roughly 20% of the $14,000 it cost to have Kimball visit them four nights a week for the first six weeks, she said.

“This is a service that would not be available to the vast majority of individuals in terms of cost,” said Altenburger, who is preparing to go back to work as a counselor for opioid use disorder. “I don’t think it would have been something I would have sought had I not had the background that I’d had in terms of my own mental health experience.”

Altenburger said she had hoped insurance would cover more of the cost of Kimball’s care because she sees it as preventative, which could “end up saving the medical community a whole lot of money.”

Aside from the cost, which she doesn’t fault Kimball for, Altenburger said Kimball’s help did the trick so that from six weeks on, Amelia was sleeping through the night. Kimball also was able to answer the first-time parents’ questions about things like breastfeeding.

Kimball described her technique as “gentle baby-led sleep coaching.” Part of her work is to help parents understand their baby’s needs. When an adult is tired, they might yawn, but a baby has more subtle ways of seeking sleep, Kimball said. They might nuzzle into a parent’s shoulder, suck on their fingers or have a “zoned out” look on their face.

It’s “like learning a new language when you have a baby,” she said.

Part of Kimball’s work also is to help grandparents and other visitors to understand how to help new parents.

Part of it might be holding the cute baby while the parents sleep, eat or shower, but it also is cooking a meal, she said.

A visit to the home of new parents “isn’t just to snuggle the baby and leave,” she said.

To make her documentary, Kimball, who is an experienced photographer, borrowed video equipment from the Springfield-area public access station. She tackled the project amid the COVID-19 pandemic this winter as a way to explore what Vermont is doing right to support mothers and babies.

Because the U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate of developed countries, Kimball said, “I felt like there was work that needed to be done. I wanted to show what was going on in Vermont.”

It’s also aimed at getting a conversation going about postpartum supports for women and families.

“We need to talk about this more,” Kimball said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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