When Jill Youse, a mother from Minnesota, discovered that she could donate her extra breast milk to African orphans, she made it her mission to get other nursing mothers to chip in, too. Now, her organization, the International Breast Milk Project helps mothers like her save children's lives.
Having a new baby is an incredible experience for any parent. But as you soon find out, that adorable new addition to the family tends to leave you short on a lot of other things: Sleep. Money. Time. And, in the Youse family’s case, freezer space.
Shortly after giving birth to her first daughter three years ago, Jill Youse, 30, claims that her husband wasn’t thrilled about all the baggies of breast milk she’d stored in their freezer, leaving no room for his microwaveable snacks. The Rochester, Minnesota mother knew she had more than enough milk for her new daughter as it was – so, to clear some freezer space and make her husband happy, she decided to look into donating her milk so that other babies could take advantage of her excess.
When Youse did a Google search for “breast milk donation,” only one result came up: iThemba Lethu, a breast milk bank in Durban, South Africa that provided milk to orphans whose parents had died of AIDS and other diseases. Immediately, Youse decided she wanted to donate her breast milk to the organization, but “when I contacted them, they said it was logistically impossible” to ship the milk from the U.S. to the South African milk bank, she says. But that didn’t stop her: “When someone tells me ‘no,’ that just tells me ‘yes, but we haven’t found a way to do it yet,’” she says.
Intent on finding a way to get her milk to iThemba Lethu, Youse made contact with a representative of the milk bank who was visiting Chicago. She made a six-hour trek from her then-home in Missouri to Chicago, carrying 8 gallons of breast milk packed in dry ice in the trunk of her car. When she arrived there, she passed the container on to the representative, so that he could take it along on his flight back to Durban that day. Though a twelve-hour round trip can’t be too pleasant, it was well worth the journey for Youse when she checked her email a few days later: iThemba Lethu had sent her photos of the babies drinking her milk.
Soon, Youse made it her mission to get other new mothers’ aid in sending breast milk to Africa. Orphaned babies in Africa face very high death rates due to the risk of HIV infection and other diseases – but, by drinking breast milk instead of a formula, the infants’ chances of survival are six times higher. Youse realized, “if there’s a chance that my milk might help them stay alive, I have to do everything I can to get it to them.”
To that end, she founded the International Breast Milk Project as a way to allow fellow nursing mothers to donate their milk to the breast milk bank in Durban. It’s not a new concept, says Youse: “Moms have been sharing milk and donor milk has been around since the beginning of time. We’re just going a little farther, distance-wise.” So far, she’s been overwhelmed with over 2,000 applications from mothers who’ve wanted to donate milk. “New moms don’t have time to volunteer doing things like Peace Corps,” she says. “But any mom knows the value of her milk. By donating it, she becomes a liquid gold millionaire.”
Thanks to the help of hundreds of nursing mothers, she’s already supplied the milk bank with more than 50,000 ounces of breast milk. So far, 15 babies have been supplied with regular access to the donated milk. “All of them have thrived and done extremely well,” says Youse.
Even if you’re not a nursing mother with milk to spare, you can provide aid to orphan babies in Africa by donating money through the International Breast Milk Project. Through the organization, Youse has solicited donations to fund health clinics and baseline medical care, and to give the people in Durban access to clean drinking water. “With the breast milk,” says Youse, “we can help with babies with immediate needs. Through donations, we can provide long-term solutions.” It’s a way to “attack the problem from both sides,” she says.
Youse knows that the contributions made through the International Breast Milk Project will never be enough to help all of the African infants in need. Still, her work is making a huge difference: Every dollar and every bottle of milk can do their part to save a child’s life. Youse’s ultimate goal, she says, is to “improve health care of babies in need – one baby at a time, one drop at a time.”
To learn more about the International Breast Milk Project, visit their website.