These parents took real action when they encountered problems and decided to make a difference.

By Elissa Strauss

“Look for the helpers,” we tell our children when scary things happen. We quote Mister Rogers to remind them (and ourselves, really) that the world is still hospitable to goodness and hope. For many, this small act of redirection is enough to feel better. But others want to be the helpers.

These fierce moms and dads identified an issue and started their own nonprofits to make a difference. Parents is donating $500 to each of these groups as a holiday gift to honor our Board of Advisors. We hope that you’ll consider contributing too.

When Miry Whitehill (center) met this Syrian refugee family, they had been living in an apartment with no furniture. The Alawads were so grateful for Whitehill’s support that they named their baby after her a year later. Photo: Danny Liao

Miry's List

Purpose Provide refugee families with everyday necessities and social support

Founded 2016

Five months after the birth of her second child, Miry Whitehill heard about a Syrian refugee family who had just moved to Los Angeles and wanted a bouncy jumper.

Her friend had an extra, and they drove over to the family’s apartment to set it up. “The apartment was so empty, I knew something was wrong,” she says. “I could only talk to the mom using eye contact because of the language barrier.”

Once the baby was playing, she excused herself to use the bathroom. “I didn’t see any soap, towels, or diaper cream,” says Whitehill. “That’s when I realized this family’s needs extended way beyond a piece of baby gear.” She walked around the apartment with the family, making a list of what they needed. When she got back home, she posted the list on her local mom’s Facebook group. Everything was purchased. “This was the beginning of Miry’s List,” Whitehill says.

She began meeting other refugee families in Southern California and quickly realized that many of them come to the U.S., fleeing persecution and violence, only to find little support. “I talked to an employee at a resettlement agency,” Whitehill recalls. “She told me that she used to be responsible for 20 families when she started her job; now she handles 200.” Whitehill wanted to help all the families slipping through the cracks but knew she couldn’t do all the list making and delivering herself.

She decided to start Amazon Wish Lists for these families so necessities could be delivered straight to their homes. Her operation grew fast, and today Miry’s List has provided 350-plus families in 13 states with material goods, along with social support like playdates and English tutoring. “I’ve never been so motivated at any job,” says Whitehill. “It gives me more energy to care for my kids.”

The Kashefis, from Afghanistan, wouldn’t have stayed in the U.S. were it not for Miry’s List. The resettlement office housed Bashir, his pregnant wife, Naseema, and their 2-year-old in a small apartment with 14 other people. On the sixth day, sick and tired, they left. They had been sleeping on the street for three nights when a neighbor told them about Whitehill. One phone call later, she set them up at a motel for a month and saw to it that three meals a day would be delivered to their room. Says Bashir, “Miry told us: ‘I am not next to you. I am behind you, in every step of life.’”

When Deborah Vauclare learned that her son would likely not live past age 10, her BFF Emily Rogath Steckler (below) started a charity to raise money to research a cure. Photo: Todor Tsvetkov Photography
Courtesy of Emily Rogath Steckler

Bisous for Léo

Purpose Fund a cure for infantile neuroaxonal dystrophy (INAD), a rare neurodegenerative disease that affects children

Founded 2018

Emily Rogath Steckler and Deborah Vauclare are best friends. They went to high school and college together, then moved to New York City together. They thought they would do everything together, until Vauclare got a job in Paris and fell in love with a Parisian. “It was a fairy tale that eventually took a sharp turn,” Rogath Steckler says.

When Vauclare’s Paris-born son, Léo, turned 1, he began to regress developmentally. Vauclare was seven months pregnant with her daughter when tests finally diagnosed Léo with INAD. “I had a million questions in my head, but I couldn’t get the words out,” she says. “I was a wreck. I had to go on bed rest for the rest of my pregnancy.”

Rogath Steckler happened to be in London with her kids, ages 3 and 5, when her friend received this news. She went to Paris to comfort her and took a picture of her own daughter kissing Léo. “When I came home to L.A., that photo haunted me,” she says. “I couldn’t get Léo out of my mind. I thought, ‘What if we could kiss him and make it better?’” About a month later, Rogath Steckler pitched her idea to Vauclare of starting Bisous (French for “kisses”) for Léo to support the INADcure Foundation. In the past year, the charity has raised more than $200,000, and celebrities like Gal Gadot, Chelsea Handler, and Eva Longoria have posted on Instagram about the cause.

But their success is tempered by the fact that Léo’s health is deteriorating. Most kids with the disease don’t live past age 10. “A year ago, he could still walk with his walker, pull himself up, sit unaided, crawl, turn over, eat regular foods, and feed himself. Today, at age 3, he can no longer do any of that,” says Vauclare. “He wakes up screaming throughout the night. We don’t know what is bothering him or how to calm him.”

Scientists have already discovered the gene mutation responsible for the disease, one that is shared with some forms of Parkinson’s, and are using the new funding to study treatments in mice and adults who have a mutation in the same gene. Says Vauclare: “We will never give up hope.”

Chinyere Oparah’s doctors ignored her wishes. She doesn’t want that to happen to anyone else. Photo: Linda Jones

Black Women Birthing Justice

Purpose Improve black women’s pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum experiences

Founded 2011

Chinyere Oparah knew that pregnancy at age 40 came with some risks. But as her doctors saw it, she was a catastrophe waiting to happen. They recommended tests and interventions that didn’t seem right to Oparah, a professor of ethnic studies at Mills College, in Oakland, California. When she tried to speak up, her doctors shut her down.

One afternoon, she and her friend Cherisse Harper began trading birth and pregnancy stories. Both were flummoxed as to why two otherwise strong, assertive women had felt so powerless during this time. What was going on?

This happened in 2010, before the bias against black women in maternity care was well documented. Black women are three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related complications as white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Harper and Oparah wanted to make black women’s birth stories known, then use these stories to push for change. They joined with other moms and birth workers to form Black Women Birthing Justice.

“I went from focusing on surviving my pregnancy to thriving with my child to realizing I had to make the experience better for others,” Oparah says.

They asked women to recall their birth stories. “Hearing these mamas brought us to tears,” Oparah says. A few years later, they published these stories in the book Battling Over Birth: Black Women and the Maternal Health Care Crisis, which they use for national political advocacy and as a resource for black women, midwives, doulas, and doctors.

One of these storytellers was Ajira Darch, who felt bullied into a C-section at age 29. Recounting this experience motivated her to become a doula. Says Darch: “I am there to remind birthing people that they don’t have to do what they’re told, that there’s time and it’s okay to wait a beat to consider the options.”

When Steven D’Achille’s wife committed suicide shortly after giving birth to their daughter, he vowed to help other women suffering from postpartum depression. Photo: Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Alexis Joy Foundation

Purpose Support women and families affected by perinatal mood and anxiety disorders

Founded 2014

Alexis Joy D’Achille knew she needed help. After the birth of her daughter, she began to feel anxious and distant. She couldn’t sleep and didn’t want to eat. She sought treatment from her ob-gyn, the E.R., and psych units. Even after going to seven facilities, she hadn’t received the help she needed to overcome postpartum depression.

Alexis, a woman who had no previous history of depression, took her own life five weeks after becoming a mom. Afterward, her husband, Steven, desperately wanted to find support for women like Alexis. At her funeral, he asked for donations, and $30,000 poured in. “My wife’s story resonated with people, and I felt immense pressure to give away the money quickly,” says D’Achille. “My daughter and I moved in with my parents, and a lawyer friend set up a foundation.”

But he couldn’t find a place where he felt comfortable donating the money. Then his lawyers introduced him to doctors who worked at a hospital network in Pittsburgh. “I was so fragile. I kept saying, ‘My wife deserved more. Everyone deserves more.’”

He and the doctors met every week until four years later, the Alexis Joy Foundation, in partnership with the Allegheny Health Network and Highmark Health, opened The Alexis Joy D’Achille Center for Perinatal Mental Health.

On the day of the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Heather Peterson came and begged for help. The birth of her second child had led to what seemed to be insurmountable anxiety. The doctors quickly devised a plan: She received medication and regular one-on-one therapy sessions. “Now, a year later, I feel great,” Peterson says. “I’m able to enjoy my girls.”

Judy Cockerton’s charity not only removes the housing barrier that potential foster parents face, but it also makes older adults feel needed. Photo: Rob Deza

Treehouse Foundation

Purpose Create intergenerational housing communities across the country so foster-adoptive families can live alongside older adults

Founded 2006

Eighteen months after Judy Cockerton became a foster parent to two young sisters, she sold the small business she had nurtured for almost two decades. “When I brought the girls home, I began reading about our foster-care system and learned that 25,000 kids age out every year before being placed with a family,” says Cockerton, a former teacher who has two biological children.

Cockerton sought to remove two of the main barriers for potential families: not having enough room in their home for foster kids, and feeling isolated. She heard about a midwestern community where foster-adoptive families live side by side with “honorary grandparents,” ages 55 and older. The former benefit from the extra help and stability; the latter feel a sense of purpose and connection. “I flew to Illinois to see it,” she says. “When I got back, I sought to adapt this concept for Massachusetts.”

Finding real estate was a challenge. The homes in Illinois were purchased way below market value. Cockerton couldn’t find a deal like that. She would have to build not only community support but also the actual residences. “I set up a meeting with our state child-welfare commissioner, and he introduced me to an affordable real-estate developer who believed in our mission and vision.” Two years later, the Treehouse Community, a 60-home village in Easthampton, opened its doors.

The homes and apartments are placed around a circle and surrounded by fields, playgrounds, and other spaces that make relationship building all but inevitable. Currently, Treehouse has 120-plus community members with a ratio of four elders to every family. “We’re expanding in Massachusetts and to Northern California,” says Cockerton.

Before Treehouse, Mary Gomez had struggled to become a foster parent. The single mom of two had long wanted to foster children with disabilities but was denied by the state because her apartment was too small.

After two years on the wait list, Gomez got a spot and moved in. Since then, she’s fostered eight kids. She’s also found some time for herself. Earlier this year, she took a vacation alone and started college for the first time. “When I’ve had a stressful day, I can call my elderly neighbors and say: ‘Can you please come over and watch the kids? I need to walk around the circle.’”

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's December 2019 issue as “I Had to Do Something.”

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