Next Stepp continues to fight health inequities amid controversy

The Next STEPP Pregnancy Center, located at 1210 22nd St. S, educates, supports and empowers women facing unplanned pregnancies with compassionate and professional medical care.

BY MARK PARKER, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — The Next STEPP Pregnancy Center strives to provide a haven for those experiencing pregnancy or parenting-related challenges through life-affirming solutions, medical services, and emotional, spiritual, and social support – especially to its south St. Pete neighbors.

CEO Carole Alexander, who has been with Next STEPP since its inception in 1993, said the center takes a holistic approach by promoting a culture of life in the community, looking after the wellbeing of the entire family – mom, dad, and the children.

Alexander said that being involved with Next STEPP for so long has allowed her to watch the many success stories play out first-hand.

“I really can’t go anywhere in St. Petersburg without running into a family — whether it’s the post office, Burger King, wherever — I’m going to run into someone who says, ‘Thank you, you were there for us when we were in need,’” explained Alexander. “So that really is just the pinnacle of having served all these years.”

With such immense support from the community for the last 28 years, it came as even more of a shock to Alexander when pro-choice advocates began to persuade some city councilmembers to withdraw grants that Next STEPP was on track to receive and defund the center.

Alexander said that they applied and met the criteria for two funds. The first is the South St Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) grant that allows small businesses to be reimbursed for half the cost of renovations, usually up to $20,000.

The CRA grant is paid for by property taxes collected in the same area as the business, including the Midtown area. The grant was the Community Development Block Grant funds that Alexander said were for COVID-related relief and federally funded.

Next STEPP received the highest possible score on its application by city staff and then was praised by the grant review committee.

“We were commended for scoring as high as we did and also congratulated for our years of service in the community,” stated Alexander. “I didn’t feel there would be any issue related to either of them until the city council had to vote…”

Alexander said that the people that called in have never visited the center, spoke to the people they serve, and were just promoting a political and personal narrative.

In an April city council meeting, Councilwoman Darden Rice compared Next STEPP to an antiabortion pregnancy center she felt “trapped” in at 18 years old. Rice said that “the young women in our community do not deserve that.”

“There were these negative, untrue, really gross mischaracterizations of who Next STEPP is,” Alexander demanded.

“The community has said that the services of Next STEPP are valued and needed,” said Alexander. “And that’s not me saying that; we’ve been here for 28 years – supported by the community.”

Alexander added that council members took the opinion of primarily white representatives from national organizations over the community’s voice that has backed them for almost 30 years, creating issues related to equity and privilege. City council unanimously voted to halt the grant program under the auspices of reevaluating the eligibility criteria, putting the status of the 21 other applicants in jeopardy.

“They didn’t fund nearly $400,000 in an area that they claim to want equity, but they were willing to turn down almost $400,000 in grants to keep from giving Next STEPP $20,000,” said Alexander. “So, they totally ignored the voice of the community – the community who understands and know what services we provide – over these folks who called in who really know nothing about the community.”

Former city councilman and current mayoral candidate Robert Blackmon said that he was also blindsided by what came up publicly, as he thought it would be a routine CRA grant. He had not heard any negative comments before the vote and saw that the CRA Review Committee had given Next STEPP high marks.

Blackmon said that after seeing the sudden shift in momentum, he was initially for a pause on the vote, but only a pause.

“We can’t discriminatorily stop funding for one organization based on criteria they adhere to and were qualified for,” said Blackmon.

Blackmon added that it was hard for him to say if the negative feedback was from local or outside sources, “but it was certainly an organized effort.”

The community backlash was swift following the April meeting.

About a month later, the community and Next STEPP staff, volunteers, and board members let city council know who they are and the services they provide. At that meeting, Councilwoman Lisa Wheeler-Bowman apologized to the center and asked for a vote to put the grant applications back on the agenda, which Blackmon seconded.

“I said I’m all on board because I wanted to approve the funding the first day,” said Blackmon. “It’s not the government’s place to pick and choose who gets funding for criteria we’ve already approved.”

The final vote was unanimous in the center’s favor.

“The council needs to remember that you have a duty to the people that adhere to the laws and do your job,” said Blackmon. “It was all about fairness. Never about the individual organization, and it never should have been.”

However, Alexander said that they are not out of the woods yet. She said that there had been changes made to the agreement, which they still have not received. She also said some of the application criteria has been added into the agreement with language related to a faith-based organization’s ability to apply.

“Well, we’re past the application process,” noted Alexander. “So, we’ll see how that plays out.”

Alexander said that the CRA grant funds — along with the Community Block Grant that they received with no issue from the same councilmembers — is going to renovations to expand their medical services. Next STEPP is working on a partnership with All Children’s Hospital and their Healthy Start program to provide additional nursing services at the center. This program will help address health inequities.

“We need to have more services in the community, particularly to help in addressing maternal mortality rates, which are so much higher in the African-American community,” averred Alexander. “The disparity is there.”

Alexander shared a recent success story that especially warmed her heart. About 10 years ago, a woman experiencing an unintended pregnancy came into the center with her boyfriend. Next STEPP helped them through that pregnancy, and soon the couple was married, and the center helped them through their next pregnancy. The couple moved to Tallahassee, where they would have two more children and start a successful soap-making business as a family.

Last month, the family drove down from Tallahassee to show their appreciation and support for the center and their Baby Love program and brought all of the current participants a gift of their soap.

“Next STEPP has been a part of this community and has worked on bringing diverse communities together,” said Alexander. “Whether it’s a Christian community, whether it’s local advocates in the community, community leaders, and all these groups together so that the value of all human life is supported and affirmed.”

Next STEPP operates as a medical clinic under the direction and supervision of a licensed physician and offers several services related to sexual health and pregnancy, including:

  • Abortion Information
  • Adoption Agency Information & Referrals
  • Maternity & Infant Supplies
  • Medical Referrals
  • Parenting Education
  • Post-Abortion Support
  • Pregnancy Options Information
  • Pregnancy Tests
  • STD/STI Testing
  • Support for Men
  • Pregnancy and Parenting Support & Education
  • Onsite ultrasound to confirm the presence of a viable uterine pregnancy

For more information, call 727-896-9119 or email info@nextstepp.org.

To reach Mark Parker, email mparker@theweeklychallenger.com

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