For parents living in poverty, it can be difficult to reach out when they need help providing for their families. When they do they risk marginalization, judgement, and discrimination from their communities. In Manitoba — which has the highest rates of child and family poverty in Canada — Pamela Delisle, a local mom, decided to put her experience and privilege to work to help low income families give their babies a better start.
In November 2011 Delisle started You Can’t Spoil a Baby, a project that gives gently used baby clothes and essentials to families in need, and so far the effort has given out 1450 gifts. We asked Delisle about the project, and how she mixes her commitment to charity and the environment with raising — and homeschooling — her six year-old daughter and nine year-old son.
What inspired you to start the project?
When my daughter started outgrowing newborn clothes I had a decision to make about what to do with them. I immediately thought of former social work clients who — for various reasons — were struggling to provide for their family’s needs. And when I saw an opportunity to use my experience and privilege to connect the people with baby items to families who needed them, I went for it.
I developed a volunteer network to collect, create, and deliver community donated, gently used baby items to parents in poverty. It allows me to achieve the goals of protecting the environment for future generations, and showing parents often marginalized and discriminated against that they — and their children — matter.
Expectant Manitoba families in need apply online, about 6-months later our volunteers deliver a beautiful, customized gift to help with the first year of baby’s life. We include baby clothes (up to 18 months), a ‘wish list’ item, and things like feeding supplies, books, and toys. To make it even more special we include a greeting card and something special for older siblings. YCSAB believes every baby deserves an equal start and all parents deserve help without judgement.
How did the project become so successful?
I started by inviting friends, family, and local parenting groups to drop off baby items they no longer needed to my Winnipeg home. When they responded positively, I recruited a small team to volunteer as donation drop spots to make it easier for donors. Fast forward six years, and the team’s grown to 40+ personal and business donation drop spots, 81 core members, a dedicated Advisory Committee, and countless donors, supporters, and applicants. To date, our team has collected, created, and delivered 1450 baby gifts.
Part of our success comes from our ability to make sustainable choices — like choosing to rely on donated items to keep our monthly budget low — we’re not yet a registered charity. And we benefit from recruiting and retaining star volunteers. We build respectful relationships with our team and accommodate their busy lives by supporting their choice to work from home when it fits their schedules. Also, our donors remain loyal because they love how we turn items they no longer need into meaningful gifts that unify parents’ experiences.
Did you expect the project to be so well received?
I knew it wouldn’t be a struggle to find people who wanted to help, but I didn’t anticipate how deep their commitment would be, or the effort and resources they’d share. The moment I knew we had something special with YCSAB was when a former applicant donated the items from her gift back to us and applied to be a volunteer because she wanted to help another family experience the same support. It’s been a privilege to be invited into people’s lives during this special, vulnerable time. We acknowledge our work wouldn’t be possible if it not for the bravery and strength of the applicants who make themselves vulnerable asking for help.
A lot of Canadians can’t imagine there’s much poverty here, can you explain why there’s so much need for a project like yours in Manitoba?
Manitoba’s child and family poverty rate is the highest of any Canadian province at 27.5 percent, with minimal improvement in the last 30 years. This leaves families in poverty at even more risk during the vulnerable time that comes during pregnancy and postpartum. The current social safety net is not adequately meeting needs, so our project offers high-need items to help with baby’s first year. Each gift gives parents the opportunity to spend their money on other necessities, like food, rent, transportation, bills, leisure, or savings.
Is this a full-time thing for you now? What else are you juggling?
In addition to volunteering 20–30 hours a week as the Executive Director of YCSAB, I homeschool my kids, Oscar and Milla, while managing our home. The special thing about how my husband, John, and I have organized our lives is we’ve prioritized flexibility. If the kids and I wake up and feel like going to the pool, we go, if they need a new book, we drop by the library. Alternatively if a volunteer or applicant needs my attention I can respond quickly. John and I are grateful we have friends and family supporting us. Their childcare, meals, and emotional support allow us to make more progress helping families.
What do you get out of running the project? How has it enriched your life?
Knowing how vulnerable becoming a parent made me, it hurt to know some new parents would be facing that experience alone or without the essentials. I get the deepest joy knowing that our applicants have less stress during pregnancy, less preparation to do before baby comes, and have people in their community who care and see value in themselves and their children. I feel pride that we highlight the strength, bravery, and resilience of parents in poverty, while redistributing wealth with gently used items. Operating YCSAB also provides valuable learning opportunities, a chance to be socially and environmentally active, and makes seeing the good in the world easier since my days are filled with generosity, connection, and gratitude.
What are your biggest challenges?
Lack of time. It takes longer to achieve goals because I don’t have previous experience running a charity. Learning as I go is fascinating and rewarding, but it takes more of my time. I try to be patient, but I still feel regret that inexperience is slowing down growth. I wish YCSAB could help faster and have no waiting list! I’d like to find mentors to assess our progress and make suggestions and referrals to help us move forward more efficiently.
What advice do you have for moms who want to start doing something but feel there’s never enough time, or they don’t know where to start?
Parenthood can be a great catalyst for inspiration but ironically it can leave us with less time to take action on the causes we care about. Luckily for activists, not acting is rarely an acceptable choice so the solution becomes learning to re-prioritize your responsibilities and broadening your idea of what ‘doing something’ means. There are many ways to make an impact, all the way from doing your own personal work (like learning about your role in racism or classism), to raising empathetic children, to showing up for people with less privilege (assisting their efforts), to seeking out and listening to diverse perspectives, or by contacting an existing organization and pitching yourself. Or maybe you can trailblaze a path to your own impactful solutions.
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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.