The executive director of the Hunter's Hope Foundation is leaving that organization to head an effort to combat infant mortality in Niagara Falls.
Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center hired Suzanne Wheeler last week as director of Healthy Families Niagara.
Niagara County Social Services Director Burt J. Marshall said Wheeler will head a staff of about six home visitors who will call on pregnant and nursing mothers in Niagara Falls neighborhoods where infant mortality is sky-high.
The most recent report showed 27.5 deaths per 1,000 live births for African-American babies in Niagara Falls, almost four times the national average and nearly five times the rate for white babies in Niagara County.
The County Legislature established an Infant Mortality Task Force to determine the reasons for the problem and later converted it into a permanent commission to try to do something about it.
One answer has been the Health Families Niagara program, funded by a $380,000 state grant sought jointly by the county Social Services Department and the medical center.
Its home visits will be made only on the basis of referrals from doctors, Social Services caseworkers and not-for-profit agencies. An effort is to be made to recruit women from the affected community.
Marshall said Wheeler is scheduled to start work Oct. 1. She will leave the foundation set up by former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly to try to find a cure for Krabbe disease, which afflicts his son, Hunter.
Wheeler did not return calls to comment Friday. She assumed the Hunter's Hope position in August 1998 after 4 1/2 years as director of the Wyoming County Office for the Aging.
Marshall, meanwhile, said a report on his survey of health care providers in Niagara Falls will delayed until the infant mortality commission's Oct. 17 meeting. He said some members of his subcommittee had been grounded by the air travel shutdown following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and couldn't attend a scheduled meeting.
Marshall said the survey sought to determine exactly what services are available and why some mothers aren't taking advantage of them. He said he has an 18-inch stack of replies on his desk.
"We want to find out where there's service gaps and find out where we're missing the boat," he said.
"We're going to do a pamphlet and distribute it to the public," he added. "There's a lot more services out there than people realize."