If you tap into Alison Jacobson’s website, you will find a quote from Oprah Winfrey which says, “Turn your wounds into wisdom.” For Jacobson, a personal tragedy from 20 years ago became the foundation for her ongoing educational mission.
“My first son Connor died in 1997 of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome when he was four months old,” said Jacobson, who later became involved with First Candle, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the elimination of SIDS, Sudden Unexpected Infant Death (SUID) and preventable stillbirth. Jacobson, a public relations professional who would gain national prominence through her blog The Safety Mom, was invited to join the First Candle board of directors, where she served for six years.
“About three years ago, First Candle reached out to me again. They were going through a growth process and asked if I wanted to consult,” she said. “I came on officially as CEO in February.”
In October, First Candle relocated its headquarters from Baltimore to New Canaan. Jacobson, a Wilton resident, works with two staffers there while the remainder of the organization’s leadership is scattered around the country. “We have someone in Indiana, someone in Michigan, so we are virtual,” she said.
In her leadership role at First Candle, Jacobson views education as her primary mission — especially in reaching people who were unaware of SIDS and confused by the name of the organization, which was founded in 1974.
“What is frustrating, coming from my PR background, is that a lot of people don’t know about us,” she said. “They think we are a candle company. The whole message behind First Candle is getting every baby to its first birthday. SIDS is the number one cause of death from one month to one year; that prime time is between two to four months” of age.
“It may be something physical with the baby, but there is also that external force. There is a higher rate of SIDS among African Americans and Native Americans. And there is a socioeconomic factor, too — unfortunately, in a lot of cases, people don’t have a safe sleep environment. They don’t have a crib or a Pack ‘n Play. Maybe they are homeless, maybe they are teen moms sleeping with their families on the couch.”
As CEO, Jacobson has ramped up the organization’s outreach to a variety of audiences through in-person and webinar presentations. Nursing schools, hospitals, churches and day care operations have received visits from First Candle experts. First Candle challenges many preconceived notions of how infants should sleep.
“We are encouraging room sharing — in the room with mom and dad, but in their own separate environment and nothing in the crib,” Jacobson said. “No blankets, no stuffed animals, nothing.”
“We do educational programs through day care trainings, because one of the most dangerous times for babies is those first few weeks in day care, because they might be in a different sleep environment or mom and dad want to give the baby something from home, like a stuffed animal or a blanket, which is dangerous.”
Marlene Galligan, director of New Haven’s Kindercare Learning Center, brought Jacobson to her facility in September for a well-received staff seminar.
“We have a safe sleep standard,” said Galligan. “But we learned a lot from Alison on why babies sleep on their backs and about the breathing process of babies. My teachers support what Alison is doing, which is making it so much easier to get information out to parents of newborn babies.”
Among her goals in 2017, Jacobson hopes to lobby state officials in Hartford to become more cognizant and financially generous in helping to spread SIDS educational awareness.
“The federal government does a lot,” she said. “We work with the National Institutes of Health and they have a very robust campaign about the safe-to-sleep program and work with organizations like us to get the word out. In terms of the state, there is not a lot that is going on — and I need to see a lot more being done.”
Jacobson is also exploring the production and release of a new public service announcement for First Candle, which would be its first in 12 years. She does not plan a traditional broadcast release. “I want to do it where it is running in hospitals and also running on YouTube (where) younger parents who are on their phones can access it where they are reading,” she said.
Jacobson is seeking wider exposure for First Candle by moving away from its annual New York City gala to more events around the nation. She is already planning a fundraising golf event in New Jersey, a speaker’s luncheon in Atlanta and more educational workshops in financially struggling Native American tribal reservations.
Closer to home, she is planning an “informational gathering session” in Fairfield County this spring. “I will be reaching out in the Fairfield County area. I am going to be out there very significantly, standing on my soapbox asking for support,” she said.
First Candle is not Jacobson’s only health-related community endeavor informed by her personal experience. Her second son was born with intellectual disabilities and she is a board member of Norwalk-based Star Inc., a nonprofit that provides support services for people with developmental disabilities. And she has detailed her husband’s struggle with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis in her blogging, which she uses to raise awareness of issues ranging from handicapped access in public spaces to fundraising efforts aimed at boosting medical research.
At First Candle, “I feel that with the CEO title, all of the pieces sort of came into place,” she said. “I am doing something that saves babies’ lives from a variety of areas.”