Mother’s Helper Gwen Broda

In the four years since she started the New Mom Project, parent with purpose Gwen Broda has helped more than 2000 Ontario moms in need. Broda and a team of volunteers use donated goods to pull together the basic essentials moms need to get through baby’s first year.

This year the project started giving out Finnish style baby boxes that give moms somewhere for baby to sleep, which has been exciting since hearing about those was the inspiration for Broda to start her own project.

The stay at home mom of three (aged four, six, and eight) and former nurse puts the equivalent of full-time hours into the project. And although she never expected the project to get so large, so quickly, Broda is passionate about helping other moms so she continues to seek ways to keep it running despite little funding. What Broda is doing is amazing, and we wanted to hear how she manages it all.

Why did you start doing what you do?

When I had my first guy I was working full-time and I got my EI mat leave benefits. I really didn’t think about the fact that when I had my daughter I wasn’t going to make enough hours to qualify, as I’d gone back to school and was only working part-time. I didn’t get anything that time. With my third I missed getting enough hours by not much, and I was so angry about it. I thought, “How can we miss people like this? We claim Canada has this great mat leave program and yet if you’re a student, or you’re self-employed, you get missed.”

Women fall through the cracks so easily. I have a lot of support from my family and friends, so I could get through my mat leave without those benefits but that isn’t the case for everybody.

When I had my third child there was an article in the Globe and Mail about the Finnish baby boxes. I thought, this is a way that we can really support people and give them that kick-start that they might need. I’m a nurse, my friends are midwives and social workers, and while I was on my mat leave we worked on providing the contents of the box. We made up bags that would represent enough clothes that if that was all you had, you could get through the newborn stage to about a year old. We’d put some blankets and diapers in there, some books and soap, every little thing that we could think of.

How did people respond when you started doing this?

I started the New Mom Project in Feb 2014, we grew so fast that we are still trying to catch up to ourselves. There’s really been a need and we had such a gap in service. Once we started collecting the basics of course everybody wants to give you their other stuff, so it ended up being more than just the clothing, it ended up being bouncy chairs and cribs and strollers. My house looked like a garage sale for three years. It was good because we realized people really want to give these things. Because when you’re done, what can you do with it? Value Village won’t take it, not everybody wants to sell their stuff, you want to give it to somebody who needs it, but how do you do that? It goes both ways — we’re a community resource that helps people, but we’re also that resource for people that want to give. So long as everything’s in good shape and hasn’t been recalled we can clean it up and use it.

Now you’re doing Finnish style boxes too?

Yes, and was a turning point for us. That’s when we realized that we needed a physical space where people could come to pick up the box because it is available to anybody in the community. We had to get out of my house, because I realized that people were going to come knock on my door to pick this up, and if we did that my husband might move out! So we found a nice little location nearby, and it’s turned into a space where the moms can come and pick up their own things whereas before I was driving around the city dropping things off to everybody which was very limiting. Now they can come and choose their own things, basically shopping for what they need, choosing what they like and everything is free.

Why is this work important?

It’s the real basics that we’re dealing with, the diapers, the soap, the things you can’t even imagine not having. These aren’t luxuries. Sure, its great to have a swing or a bouncy chair, but if you can’t put diapers on your baby that’s pretty rough. We have people asking us for double strollers because they have a baby and a two year old and right now they’re stuck in the house and can’t even get groceries. It’s called the New Mom Project and not the new baby project because these are tools to empower the moms to be able to parent the best they can.

What does this work bring to your life?

Honestly, it’s a struggle to balance it all, because I don’t get paid and like to devote so much of my time to it. The payback comes often though. A social worker yesterday called and told me that she was looking to get a box for her client because she has nothing, and I was able to say, “Okay send her over because I have the boxes, but if you fill out the form she can come over and shop for whatever else she needs.” The social worker said, “Are you kidding? You’re doing this? This is incredible.” It is so satisfying to get the feedback. We know this if life changing for new moms.

Part of what’s satisfying about doing the New Mom Project is having something that’s satisfying to me, that is not about my family. Even though it’s still about moms and kids, it’s fulfilling a part of me that is still important. Sure, you get gratified doing nice things, but this has gone way beyond volunteering, I’m pretty much running a business here, and it is hugely satisfying to see that you can build a thing like this and have success.

What do your kids think about what you do?

They do and they don’t get it. They come and help do things with me. I pass my stuff on and I’ll explain, “That’s going to another baby who doesn’t have a coat and needs it,” but I don’t think that they really understand that somebody would ever be in a position where they don’t have a coat.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other parents about working/living with purpose?

When you find the things that you’re interested in, there are always ways you can mix your passion and career to find something that works. I never expected this to become so big. My husband says, “You really didn’t think this through, did you?” We hit this gap in services that we really didn’t realize that was this huge. I think the most successful things come from seeing that gap, or a lack of services for people, and trying to fill those voids with something meaningful. That’s what’s most rewarding.

What do you think you have in common with other moms?

The day-to-day stress of managing the kids after school activities. I have three kids so I can’t put them all in two things — there aren’t enough days for that! At one point we had Sparks and baseball all at the same time and it was terrible! I’m trying to give them their best life and I feel horrible because the third guy is in no programs right now because there’s just no time! I don’t want to be bothered taking him to things that he probably won’t be that interested in anyway.

What’s been hardest about what you do?

The hardest thing about this is the funding part. I’m a nurse not a businessperson. It’s great to have these great ideas and want to help people but I have to work out how to get the funding part working as much as I can. How do you make it sustainable? That’s the ongoing challenge, how I do pay the rent every month?

I also feel guilty about spending so much time on this. I’m checking emails when I should be sitting reading books with them, or replying to Facebook posts when we’re trying to have family time, but anyone who is an entrepreneur knows how hard it is to get something going, and it’s exactly like that but I don’t get paid. But, I am here with them and not at a job working right now. I have the time to sit there with them and be present even if I’m half-distracted with other things.

What other moms do you admire?

So many, but I’m especially in awe of moms who start a business. There’s this one mom who’s been helping me from the beginning. I met her when I picked stuff up from her house after she’d just had a baby. She said, “If you need any graphic design work done just let me know.” Four years later we are best friends and she’s still doing all my graphic design work. But I don’t know how she manages to run a business and be a mom, she is such a hard worker.

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The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.

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