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Retired Nursing Mothers at the World Walk

Elaine Pruitt
Charlotte, North Carolina, USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 36 No. 6, December 2000-January 2001, p. 119

LLL of Charlotte, North Carolina, USA, thought up a way to reach a whole new segment of the community with our 2000 World Walk. Our goal was to extend an invitation to every mother in the Charlotte area who is breastfeeding or has ever breastfed a baby--especially the "Retired Nursing Mothers." These hundreds of women share the common bond of breastfeeding with us and often persevered under pressures unimaginable today. They are proud of breastfeeding their children.

One hundred eighteen people attended our Walk; 39 were sponsored Walkers; approximately $2,900 was raised through silent auction and pledges combined. Sponsored Walkers with pledge money in hand received gift bags and were eligible for one of the dozens of door prizes donated by area businesses. Our celebration included a Blues Band, a potluck dinner, balloon twisting, face painting, juggling, and lots of fun. We felt this approach made the retired breastfeeding mothers feel valued and had a positive effect on the walk and on breastfeeding awareness in Charlotte as a whole. Two television news channels even showed up! One channel put us on the 11:00 PM news that night.

The Director of the county Breastfeeding Peer Counselor Program, Margaret Davis, provided a great visual aid to help understand breastfeeding in the past. She made a 16 panel time-line that chronicled breastfeeding from the beginning of time to the present. It was colorful, wonderfully educational, and stretched more than 20 feet. This was a great tool to link the past and current breastfeeding mothers together in one common experience.

To find out who was the oldest participant and to celebrate every mother, we applauded the women by decades and each was given a flower by one of the children. Those who nursed in the 90s were asked to raise their hands and the crowd clapped for them. Then the 80s and on back to find the winner. I mentioned that this year's theme was "Breastfeeding, It's Your Right" and that we should appreciate the breastfeeding mothers of the past as "veterans" of the cause. Without their dedication to breastfeeding and to encouragement of others, LLL and the breastfeeding mothers of today couldn't have come this far.

The winner of the "Oldest Mother Who Nursed" award was Ivy Benedykt, the 90-year-old grandmother of South Carolina, USA, Leader, Susan Burns. Susan, her mother, Rosemarie Belcher, and her grandmother were all in attendance. When I called Ivy's name, the elegantly trim lady rose, squared her shoulders, and marched toward me. She started telling me her story quietly. I urged her to take the microphone and tell the crowd. After a little coaxing, she did. Ivy began, "I nursed in the 40s! Everybody in England in the 1940s nursed their babies because during World War II, milk was rationed." She recited the names of her children and grandchildren, said she thought LLL work was important, and she was glad to support it. Susan Burns confided to me in private that her grandmother had looked forward to that moment for weeks. The three women were obviously proud of each other.

The prize was dinner-for-two at an elegant downtown restaurant named Bravo.* The waiters are trained singers and serenade you all evening. It seemed the perfect way to say "Bravo" to the breastfeeding women of the past.

The idea of honoring retired breastfeeding mothers came to me after meeting several women while soliciting donations for the walk and auction. First I talked with the manager of the local Trolley gift shop. When I mentioned LLL, her chin rose and her back straightened, "Breastfeeding! How about nursing 30 years ago! I was an LLL member in Kentucky, USA. What would you like?" She smiled a big smile and pulled a whole gift pack of items off the shelves. She was proud - proud of herself, proud of LLL. We felt an instant sisterhood.

A few weeks later, I was talking with a clerk at a toy store about a donation, when a lady tapped me on the shoulder. She was a retired LLL Leader from years ago in Virginia, USA. Again, the pride and sisterhood were instant. She took a sponsor sheet and several flyers. "I'm glad to know LLL is active here."

A tiny little 70-year-old lady in my church also urged me on. She's always careful not to offend anyone. One Sunday she followed me into the parking lot, looked both ways, stood up on her tiptoes, and said, "You know, I'm proud of what you're doing with your children. You keep on nursing! I nursed years ago and as my sister always says, a mother who 'will ' can't understand a mother who 'won't'!" She had to take her husband to the doctor on the day of the walk, but she wanted to sponsor me.

The concierge at Bravo Restaurant had also gone to LLL for help years ago. That's part of why they gave us two dinner-for-two certificates (over $100 value). A marketing representative at Bravo suggested the LLL in Columbia, South Carolina, USA contact their other location for a similar donation and gave me the phone number and contact name to use.

A bookstore manager had also been involved in breastfeeding activism and eagerly authorized a donation. She even took the time to pick out books called "backpack board books" that focused on carrying your baby.

I started to get a "coming-out-of-the-woodwork" feeling, as though these women were all around me but no one had bothered to reach out to them. Toward this end we asked every Walk attendee to write her name and address on a sign-in sheet. The sheet also asked if they wanted to receive mailings about future events and if they were interested in volunteering with LLL. The enthusiasm generated at the Walk makes me think that we can enlist these women in the cause of helping breastfeeding mothers today.

I am glad to share materials that we developed to help other Leaders next year. I wrote a number of form letters, a donation solicitation letter (fax, mail, and in-person versions) as well as the Breastfeeding Courage Story form that was passed out at the Walk so the women could share their breastfeeding stories with others.

The Walk was so very much fun and revealed a sisterhood out there that I am so glad we discovered. Just think, the older woman who makes eye contact with you while you breastfeed in the library or dentist's office might be a veteran breastfeeding mother waiting to support LLL ... if only she were asked.

* Editor's Note: Are you wondering who Ivy decided to take to her "dinner-for-two"? Susan Burns wrote: "After much discussion it was decided that the three of us (Ivy, Rosemarie, and Susan) will ALL go to Bravo since we were all beneficiaries of mother's milk!"

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