The Gift of Life - Featuring NorthernStar Mother's Milk Bank
There’s no better gift than the gift of life. As October is pregnancy and infant loss awareness month, we wanted to talk about one such charitable foundation who are actively giving this gift – NorthernStar Mother’s Milk Bank. This amazing organization is Canada’s only community-based milk bank. Their mission is to screen breastfeeding mothers who want to donate their excess milk, pasteurize it and provide it to babies in need across Canada. Their vision is that all babies in need have access to safe human milk. They are immensely proud of the fact that since opening in 2012, no baby has gone without the milk they needed!
This is a community-based solution. It is not big pharma or formula. The whole community bands together to create this golden resource of human milk. It doesn’t matter what race, religion, gender, income level etc. – everyone participates and babies in need can access the gift of life.
Canada has 4 milk banks, 3 of which are part of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBNA). These milk banks are located in Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto. The milk bank in Quebec is associated with the blood banking system.
We sat down with Co-Founder and Executive Director, Jannette Festival to learn more about NMMB and here’s what we found out:
There are basically two parts in each milk bank – the administrative and the lab. In administrative, staff will screen the mothers with the utmost of precision and service. A potential donor mother will contact the milk bank online and provide some basic information. The staff then call the mother and do a verbal screening to confirm the information provided online, and to ask some further questions such as what type of medications they might be on, place of birth, if they need bags for the excess milk, if everyone in the household is healthy etc. The follow- up process is quite rigorous to ensure the milk being provided is up to the standards of the HMBANA. If the verbal screening shows that the donor mother is following safe practices, the NMMB sends out a package to them containing roughly 35 questions to have a written account on file. Mothers will then need to do blood work for Syphilis, Hep-B and C, HIV and HTLV 1 and 2. Verification of their health get signed off by their family doctors who then provide this confirmation to the milk bank. Once this process is complete, the donor mother’s are ready to drop off their excess human milk to the milk bank and they can provide a supply that is up to six months old and continuing up to one year after birth! All milk is matched as close as possible to the age of the baby in need.
In administration, there’s a lot of coordinating of the “milk drops ”so the supply is readily available for babies in the NICU. Milk Drops are freezers strategically placed in hospitals and Public Health Units. They have 11 milk drops across the prairie provinces where screened donors can drop off their milk.
Furthermore, the administrative staff work very closely in their relationships with donors. They will give them tours of the facility and the donors truly become friends. When the donor “retires” most often they are sad it has to come to an end. This is a large part of the community focus. Their Bereavement Wall (pictured below) is a main feature. We have seen it ourselves and it is immensely touching. Many will shed a tear staring at this Van Gogh’s Starry Night inspired piece.
In the labs, there’s a whole other rigorous process as you might imagine. We’ll only touch on certain points instead of getting into too much scientific detail. A typical day looks like this:
- Pour and filter milk
- Analyse the milk
- Combine certain mother’s milk to create a batch.
- Pour it into bottles, barcode the bottles and place into the automated pasteurizer.
- After pasteurization, its labeled and back into the freezer. One bottle goes to a 3rd party lab for bacterial testing.
- Pull milk from freezers to thaw overnight for the next days pasteurization.
- New deposits which moms drop off are sorted by date and put in 1.5L deposits chronologically to keep the milk pumped in certain periods together.
Presently there is >100,000 oz of milk in the freezers at a time and 1000 oz of milk is pasteurized each day. That’s a lot of nutrients to feed lots of babies in need! After all of this has been completed, the milk is then transported to hospitals in different regions. NMMB uses their own couriers for milk drops within Alberta, FedEx for outside provinces, and even WestJet Cargo for emergency supplies.
Boobs Save Lives Gala
On September 30th, 2020 the NorthernStar Mothers Milk Bank hosted their very first virtual fundraising event – The Boobs Save Lives Gala. Their fundraising goal for this event was to raise 50,000 and they are very happy to announce they surpassed this goal and raised just over 70,000! They had several great corporate sponsors as far out as Toronto and 32,000 of this amount was donated by individuals in the community! This gala featured talent who donated their time. The “Stay at Home Gala” organization handled the platform for technical flow over Zoom. Check out these fun takeaways:
Courtney and Kevin Stanfield (co-anchors at CTV) hosted this event and they shared their story about how they became affiliated with NMMB. When Courtney gave birth to their twins, she didn’t have enough of her own milk supply to feed both babies. So the hospital said “would you like formula or donated human milk”. Courtney was floored by this – other mothers actually donate their milk to help her babies! After a few days of using donated milk, Courtney’s supply came in and she then became a donor herself, donating 20L AFTER breastfeeding her own twins. Many of the donor moms start off this way – they receive donated milk in hospital and then pay it forward. Read more inspiring stories here https://www.northernstarmilkbank.ca/blog
Becoming A Donor
NorthernStar Mothers Milk Bank do not recruit donors. They happen organically. They are very aware that donating excess human milk is not for everybody and many mothers are already donating within their own family and friend circles. They simply want mothers to be thoughtful about their excess milk and aware of their options. Think to yourself, “where will my milk be most impactful”.
Of course, like with any charitable foundation, Financial Donors are just as important for the success of the mission and vision. That’s why Rapid Baskets has decided to donate a portion of our sales to their efforts. If you can extend help as well, click this link https://www.northernstarmilkbank.ca/give-financially
- Many donor moms are actually surrogate mothers who are unpaid. Once they have given birth and the baby is taken home with their family, some surrogate moms donate their entire milk supply or pump for the milk bank. These specific types of donor moms are referred to as “the gifts that keep on giving” as they first gift the gift of life to deserving families by carrying and giving birth to babies, and then providing their milk to the milk bank to give life to babies in need.
- The NMMB has shipped milk to India, Oregon & Texas and the Bahamas.
- Jannette started this foundation when she was a Labor and Delivery Nurse with a great passion for the cause. She was initially encouraged by the Foothills Hospital in Calgary AB – the first to recognize the need for such a vision.
“The milk bank is in the business of saving lives. It’s not just a food – it’s a medicine” – Jannette
Many thanks to all Physical Donors (the moms), Financial Donors, and supporters of the Gala.
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