MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – Governor Mark Dayton declared January Health Equity Month, to shine a light on the goal to give all Minnesotans the chance for a healthy life, regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.

But, in Minnesota, statistics show another reality. African American and American Indian babies are more than twice as likely to die as white children, and a recent study shows Minnesota has one of the largest disparities in the nation when it comes to the health of white children compared to children of color.

Children's Minnesota is trying to change this outcome by uniquely connecting with communities living this reality.

Armani Alvarez, a 7-week-old baby boy, is recovering from RSV and pneumonia, and now has a good bill of health after an intensive care stay at Children's Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis. The hospital sent him home with another gift, tiny, handmade pair of moccasins honor his family's American Indian tradition, signifying his welcome into the world.

It’s part of an emerging program at Children's Minnesota called “First Gift” as an effort to break mistrust in the American Indian community.

“I was pretty shocked, really happy we received a pair because Children’s recognizes native Americans and we are the most underserved and recognized people in the country,” said Kara Artishon, his mother. “When it comes to healthcare, I think some natives don’t feel comfortable talking with providers and maybe if there were native providers they would feel more comfortable.”

“Children's has responded to that is by listening,” said Lisa Skjefte, Children’s Minnesota health equity specialist, who works as a liaison in the American Indian community. “Essentially one pair of moccasins can be created by six community members, and in the weaving of that is hopes, stories, blessings. It's like we have deconstructed these walls, literally connect that back to community and that is part of healing.”

The program is also part of Children's effort to change the narrative when it comes to health equity, addressing barriers that prevent a healthy life, with cultural relevance and sensitivity.

“We know how to deliver healthcare to kids, but we are not experts on solving these social determinants of health. We are not experts in structural racism and poverty and all the economic supports our families need to be healthy. That is one of the reasons we are doing some thoughtful, deliberative work in working with the community, creating an environmental that is more respectful and collaborative with the communities we see,” said Kelly Wolfe, Children’s Minnesota Director of Public Affairs and Advocacy.

Wolfe points to a recent Annie E. Casey Foundation study, where Minnesota's white children showed a top ranking in child well-being, while children of color scored among the worst of health outcomes in the country.

“This is incredibly personal as a child advocate, but as a parent when you hear 3,000 children are homeless or 1 in 8 children are living at risk of hunger, that's hard to swallow, and I don't think any of us should find that acceptable,” said Wolfe. “I would also say there is a moral and ethical component, these are our children, and if they don’t have access to basic needs, housing food needs, I don’t think we are doing the right thing.”

Wolfe said for instance, if a child has asthma, providers will examine external environmental factors, like housing.

“We know we can take care of them inside our hospital or inside our clinic walls, but if they are going home to a house that is moldy, or a house has poor air ventilation, then it doesn’t matter what we do here, that will have more of an impact,” said Wolfe. “So how do we get kids and families connected to free legal services?”

The number of Minnesota children living in high poverty neighborhoods has doubled since 2000, with much of that increase coming among children of color. In Hennepin Country, African-American children are more than three times as likely to die as white children.

While much work lies ahead, making needed strides with stable housing, healthy and nutritious food, and affordable health care, baby Armani's family can see what comes from a labor of love.

“It makes me feel like there is hope to bring our culture back,” said Artishon, his mother, holding the moccasins that will soon adorn his tiny feet.