by Bunthay Cheam
On Wednesday, Dec. 1, Terri Chi-Lee held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Community Birth Center (CBC) in Lacey. It is the first BIPOC/Woman-owned birth center in the South Sound area and the first Khmer-owned birth center in Washington State.
The event — which was attended by a crowd of Chi-Lee’s family, patients, and friends — began with a blessing ceremony by Khmer Buddhist Monks from Wat Prachum Raingsey temple in Yelm.
“It was really special — a little overwhelming,” said Chi-Lee of the event. “I wasn’t expecting that many people … I can’t believe that it’s true and real and that I achieved it, you know? I always dream big. I’ve always dreamed big my whole life.”
After Chi-Lee graduated from midwifery school at Bastyr University in 2019, she traveled to Takeo, Cambodia to deepen and connect with midwifery in her ancestral homeland.
“What I got from that whole experience, I learned that the midwife just became a family member,” said Chi-Lee. “And I think that’s kind of like the foundation of my style of midwifery. It’s not a client-provider relationship, right? You become family.”
Those elements of her Khmer Buddhist upbringing are what helps her lead her practice.
“The midwife I worked with in Cambodia, she talked about [how] sometimes people are so poor, they can’t even afford food,” said Chi-Lee remembering the words of this mentor. “‘We send them home and we give them a bag of rice. We provide for them, we don’t expect them to provide for us. Then Buddha will provide for us.’ That’s kind of how I’ve been in my practice and it has come back around; the abundance comes back like the karma.”
Iona McClellan is one of Chi-Lee’s patients who has experienced that practice; Chi-Lee was her midwife. She traveled from her home near Gig Harbor to celebrate the opening with her partner and newborn that Chi-Lee helped deliver as a home birth. “He’s two weeks old today,” McClellan said. “This our first adventure out so it’s a lot, but it’s chill. He just eats a lot.”
Chi-Lee began what would become the birth center to create more options for people looking for out-of-hospital births and to help educate and expand the community’s understanding of reproductive care.
“We were all conditioned to think that hospitals are the gold standard,” said Chi-Lee.
“I really wanted to know who was gonna be there for the birth and if at the hospital it’s like, whoever is on shift that at that time, and the closest hospital had a really high rate of C-section and for me I wanted to try to do it naturally,” said McClellan, “I wanted to be around family and just be in a comfortable space and work with somebody who I trust. I didn’t want to have to argue with nurses I didn’t like or get pressured into doing something I didn’t want to do.”
In between births, Community Birth Center holds events and classes that includes topics such as lactation, newborn sleep, and postpartum healing.
Chi-Lee spent January through March of this year building out the center — formerly a real estate office — and the community has been part of the project from the beginning. “The community came out to help me build, strip the whole space, and then rebuild it back up to make it work,” said Chi-Lee. “We learned so much on YouTube ourselves.”
Chi-Lee says the hardest part was the bureaucracy she had to navigate to open the center. “There’s so much paperwork,” she explaied “Everything from March until October was getting licensed, Department of Health (DOH) inspections, just going through all the checkboxes with the construction review and then with the actual inspector. My inspection with the DOH inspector was eight hours.”
But it was all worth it, says Chi-Lee. Prior to the CBC, the nearest center associated with midwives of color was in Renton.
Diversity in birthing options is also important to McClellan, which is why she made a point to be at the CBC’s opening.
“I think there’s not many birthing centers that focus and center People of Color,” said McClellan. “I’ve lived in Olympia for a while and there are birth centers there, but it is super white, so having a place that is going to prioritize families of color is really amazing.”
Bunthay Cheam was born in the Khao I Dang refugee camp. He is a storyteller, activist, and lifelong resident of South Park.
📸 Featured Image: Ribbon-cutting at the opening of the Community Birth Center. (Photo: Jenna Hanchard)
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