Somewhere in South Africa, a baby could be thriving today because of life-saving breast milk donated by a mom in Savoy.
The story of how milk from the Midwest winds up halfway around the globe begins with another local mom, Jill Youse. Her freezer full of breast milk led to the creation of a nonprofit agency that has supplied more than 277,000 ounces of milk to underweight babies and orphans across the world.
In 2006, while nursing daughter Stella, now 6, Youse found herself with an abundance of frozen milk she had stored for when she wasn't home to nurse her baby.
"I had a ridiculous amount," said Youse, who was then living in Missouri.
In fact, her freezer was overflowing, a fact her husband, Jeremy, now a dermatologist at Christie Clinic in Champaign, firmly pointed out one night.
Youse decided to see if she could donate it, so she Googled "donate breast milk." Up popped the name of an orphanage and milk bank in Durban, South Africa — the iThemba Lethu Breastmilk Bank, founded in 2001 by Professor Anna Coutsoudis and a group of friends to help babies orphaned or abandoned as a result of HIV.
Youse emailed the orphanage, asking if she could send her milk to help babies there. Coordinator Penny Reimers wrote back thanking her but politely explaining that it would cost far too much to fly the milk 9,000 miles and keep it frozen.
"But Jill, I discovered, is not a woman you say 'impossible' to!" Reimers said Friday in an email interview.
Youse went through the qualifying process to become a donor, which involved medical questionnaires and blood tests, and the next time she emailed the agency, Reimers' husband was in Chicago on business.
"Before he knew it Jill was at the airport to meet him," she wrote.
Youse had driven to Chicago from Missouri with 1,000 ounces of breast milk packed in "heaps of dry ice" that Reimers' husband refilled in New York before the flight to South Africa — getting some curious looks in the process.
Soon, Youse received pictures from South Africa of babies drinking the milk.
"It was unbelievable to see a part of me way over there," she said.
Several friends joined in on the next shipment, and after a local newspaper story, the number grew to 10. More media coverage followed, including a feature on "ABC World News" and a mention on "Oprah." Youse had formed a nonprofit group, the International Breast Milk Project, in April 2006, but realized the logistics were more than she could handle alone.
After hearing a story on National Public Radio about Prolacta Bioscience — a California company that developed a "human milk fortifier" prescribed for preemies in neonatal intensive care units — Youse contacted the company's CEO. She formed a partnership with Prolacta, which covers the cost of collecting, processing, bottling and packaging the milk as well as testing donor moms.
Through that partnership, 25 percent of the milk goes to babies in South Africa, and 75 percent is used for Prolacta's milk fortifier, which the company sells to hospitals in the United States.
Prolacta also donates $1 to the International Breast Milk Project for every ounce of milk that stays in the U.S. The money is used to support the nonprofit's operations and its grants to charities in South Africa — $184,000 to support milk banks, for example.
Quick International Courier — a company that specializes in shipping blood and other medical supplies — also agreed to cover the substantial overseas shipping costs. Chief Operating Officer Dominique Bischoff-Brown has said the project "speaks to her heart" as a mother, a spokeswoman said. She is now president of the project's board.
Youse quit her job as a medical sales representative to direct the nonprofit, but in 2009 turned it over to Amanda Nickerson, a donor who had previously worked for the American Cancer Society. Youse remains on the board of directors.
"I never wanted to do it for my career," Youse said.
Looking back, Youse said, she had no idea at the start how big the effort would become.
"It wasn't about changing the world," she said. "I had something to give."
Today, the organization ships milk twice a year to South Africa, and has sent emergency shipments to Haiti and the Philippines. The next shipment — 11,000 ounces, or about 2,750 bottles of milk — will go out Monday to Durban and a network of milk banks in Cape Town that supplies 27 hospitals there.
Youse notes there are multiple milk banks in the United States where moms can donate. She was drawn to support those in South Africa, where HIV infects almost 40 percent of pregnant women in some provinces.
"The donations from IBP have been a lifeline often when supplies are running low and enabled us to save many babies and improve the quality of life of others," Reimers said.
Youse also sees it as a way for new moms, who are often consumed with caring for their own babies, to give back.
"It connects you to other moms and other babies across the world," she said.
Laura Bleakney, 37, a mother of two in Savoy, donated milk to the project about a year ago, when her younger son was ready to quit breast-feeding. She had a stockpile in the freezer and liked the fact that some of the milk from Youse's project went to Africa.
After going through the required testing, she donated four gallon-sized zipper storage bags full of milk bags — several hundred ounces.
"It was extremely easy," Bleakney said. "I just thought it would be really cool to help somebody, a baby in another country or within the U.S. that was in the (hospital)."
International Breast Milk Project: http://www.breastmilkproject.org/
Human Milk Banking Association of North America: https://www.hmbana.org/
iThemba Lethu Breastmilk Bank, Durban, South Africa: www.ithembalethu.org.za
Milk Matters, Cape Town, South Africa: http://www.milkmatters.org/
Mothers must qualify to donate milk
The logistics of supplying milk to South Africa are intricate, but officials there say the project has had a big impact.
Mothers who want to donate to the International Breast Milk Project go through a qualifying process that can take six weeks or more. The donor must complete an application with 52 medical-related questions. If there are no red flags, a nurse is sent to the donor's home for a blood test, to screen for drug use, alcohol, HIV and hepatitis.
The mother's doctor and the baby's pediatrician also must fill out forms saying that the mother is healthy and that donating milk won't harm the baby. The project wants only "extra milk that the baby's not going to use and would have been thrown down the drain," said Executive Director Amanda Nickerson.
It will accept milk that's been stored for up to 10 months if kept in a deep freezer, as long as it's clearly marked with the date, she said.
Once a mom qualifies and has enough milk, a cooler is shipped to her home via FedEx. When it's filled, FedEx returns to pick it up.
After it's processed in California, the milk is packed in dry ice with alarms inside the coolers if the temperature inside gets too warm. Quick International teams monitor the shipments all the way to South Africa.
There, the milk is sent to two milk banks in Durban and Cape Town. It's prescribed by physicians for babies whose mothers have died or can't breast-feed, sometimes just temporarily.
The goal is to have the mother breast-feed if at all possible, even those infected with HIV, health officials said. Mothers and babies are put on antiretroviral medications, which lowers the risk of HIV transmission considerably.
Previously, the government handed out formula for children of HIV-infected mothers, but the babies often died from diarrhea and respiratory infections because they didn't get the protective immune properties from breast milk, said Penny Reimers, former coordinator of iThemba Lethu Breastmilk Bank in Durban. Babies can tolerate breast milk from a variety of donors, she said.
Reimers and others say publicity about the U.S. shipments has raised awareness in South Africa about the importance of breast-feeding and the need for donor milk, from baggage handlers at the airports to the doctors who use it to treat premature infants.
Reimers' organization was the only milk bank in South Africa in 2001; now more than 50 operate across the country.
"People realize how important breast milk is if we are flying it from the USA to feed babies here," Reimers said in an email interview.
Linda Glynn, who co-founded Milk Matters milk bank in Cape Town in 2003, started working with the International Breast Milk Project in 2007 and it now supplies milk to 27 hospitals. Glynn said the effort has resulted in a "huge shift" in the attitude of doctors as they see how well preemies do on breast milk.
"What IBMP milk has done is elevate the importance of donor milk throughout society," she said.