In a city where many women do not receive adequate prenatal care, some travel out of their way to get to the Hunt Place clinic. Referred by friends and relatives, these mothers-to-be come from all over the District because they're eager to see the new items in store for them.
What's in store -- or rather, in the store at this D.C. government clinic in Northeast Washington -- are two dozen shelves of bottles, receiving blankets, diapers, sweaters, booties, T-shirts and other nursery items.
The store, known as the Stork's Nest, is part of an unusual incentive program sponsored by the D.C. chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority and the March of Dimes to encourage pregnant women to keep their prenatal appointments.
With the number of infant deaths and low-birth-weight infants in the District on the rise in the past three years, sorority members said there is an urgent need for a program that entices women to seek proper care.
"The point is to get them in early and keep them coming in" for regular prenatal visits, said Naomi Pemberton, a member of the sorority who helped start the Stork's Nest program here four years ago.
The clinic staff helped sorority members devise a point system that would encourage expectant mothers to begin prenatal care in the first trimester of pregnancy.
The clinic patients can use the points they accumulate visiting the clinic to buy items in the store.
The earlier they visit the clinic, the more points they get.
After hearing her baby's heartbeat during her last visit, Jennifer Jones, 19, decided it was time to start shopping for her unborn child.
"I was excited to see all this," she said as she looked over the shelves filled with baby oil, diapers, bottles, children's books and nursery supplies. "It's like a tiny baby store."
"I'll have a lot of stuff by the time he's born," said Jones, who lives in Northeast.
A woman who comes in during the second month of pregnancy and keeps all of her appointments can earn 12,000 points.
A typical item at the store costs 500 to 1,500 points.
Customers look forward to going to the Stork's Nest, which is limited to the 208 maternity patients currently enrolled at the Hunt Place clinic.
While many customers said they would seek early and regular prenatal care with or without the incentive program, the number of maternity patients being served annually at the Hunt Place clinic has increased from 409 in 1987 to 536 in 1989.
"Any endeavor where there's a reward for performing well is attractive," said Harry Lynch, a physician who heads the D.C. Public Health Commission's Office of Maternal and Child Health.
"This program has been an effective instrument in getting patients to come regularly, particularly younger patients."
Sorority members also are eager to work at the Stork's Nest, planning their week's activities around responsibilities at the store.
Most are retired teachers; some still teach at D.C. schools and volunteer in their spare time.
More than 80 Stork's Nest stores have opened nationwide since the international black sorority and the March of Dimes started the project in Atlanta in 1971.
Despite the project's growing popularity, sorority members said it wasn't easy getting a program started in the District.
Many older sorority members were opposed to the Stork's Nest because they felt it would encourage teenage pregnancy.
"I was never in favor of having babies out of wedlock," said Velma Owens, 82, a life member of the sorority.
"I felt in the beginning that we should not have gone into it."
But as more sorority members became involved in the project, Owens said, her views changed and she joined the Stork's Nest planning committee.
"We have to protect the babies," Owens said.
"That's the main thing."
To educate expectant mothers and fathers, the sorority sponsors seminars and discussion groups on health care.
Sorority members also stuff their patrons' shopping bags with pamphlets on genetics, smoking and nutrition.
Many volunteers, having raised children, are eager to offer advice on these topics and many others.
"You shouldn't feed your candy to a baby. It makes them hyper," sorority member Sarah Cottom told Sabrina Kinney, a Stork's Nest shopper whose son was sucking happily on a piece of chocolate.
While the 20-year-old mother smiled and continued to look over the shelves for a comb and brush set for her unborn child, Cottom stuffed more pamplets on nutrition into Kinney's shopping bag.
Maternity patients said they find the volunteers' advice very thoughtful and helpful.
It's like having several grandmothers, said 18-year-old Teresa Carter on her first visit to the Stork's Nest.
"You don't feel alone," Carter said.
"You know that people are out there to help you."