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Starting a Group in a Small Town

Janell Robisch
Luray VA USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 42 No. 2, April-May-June 2006, pp. 38-39.

When I moved in April 2004 to Luray, Virginia, USA, a small tourist town with a population of a little less than five thousand, it took me almost a year to decide whether I would take the leap and start a new La Leche League Group. The challenges were many.

Before making our way to the Shenandoah Valley, my husband and I spent the first nine years of our marriage in definite suburbia, first in northern New Jersey, USA, and then in northern Virginia. Our son, A.J., was born in 2000, just months after we relocated to Virginia. I discovered LLL when A.J. was 10 months old. I became a Leader just after he turned two and co-led with the Lake Ridge Group near my home.

Prior to moving, I learned that Luray had no LLL Group. The closest Group was 45 minutes away in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Once we moved, I was already driving two hours back to the Lake Ridge area fairly often to visit with friends, so I did not want to add another regular commute to my schedule.

In Lake Ridge, I had three co-Leaders. I alternated meeting duties with one, and the other two led the evening meeting for another local Group. The Lake Ridge Group also had its fair share of non-Leader Group workers, including a Librarian, Treasurer, and Publicity Coordinator. I knew that if I started a new Group in Luray, all of these jobs would fall to me.

Early in 2005, I finally felt settled enough in my new home to consider starting a new Group. First, I visited the Harrisonburg Group and got to know the Leaders there. It was wonderful how I could just walk into a room full of women I'd never met and feel right at home. They admitted they hadn't seen a lot of women from Luray (or anyone in Page County), so only time would tell if there was a need. Also, I had no idea how breastfeeding was perceived in my new area; I dreaded what people might think if they knew I was still nursing my four-year-old son. I was starting to miss the comparatively progressive view of breastfeeding I had encountered in northern Virginia and the many like-minded companions I had there.

After much internal debate, I decided to take the plunge. LLL of Page County was born. I found a meeting location at the local gym, contacted my Area Coordinator of Leaders (ACL), named my Group, started to get to know the treasury process a little better, ordered books to start a Group Library, and put up flyers in grocery stores and at the public library. I sent an announcement to the local cable access channel and the weekly paper, along with a press release. I was disappointed when the paper did not print the press release, but they did include the meeting announcement, which was a start.

LLL of Page County had its first meeting in April 2005. No one showed up. Yes, I was disappointed, but I also expected it. In such a small town, I knew it would be a slow start, especially if attitudes were not breastfeeding- friendly (as I suspected and later confirmed with some mothers). If anyone was breastfeeding in Page County, they weren't advertising it! Some local mothers have since told me that they have never seen a mother breastfeeding in public here and that they feel that "no one here breastfeeds." Despite the no-show meeting, I decided to keep plugging until I had held at least a few meetings to see how things went.

My break came after the April meeting. A reporter from the local paper called and said that they had received my information and would like to interview me for a piece on the new Group, along with two other breastfeeding-related articles for their monthly health page. I was so ecstatic that I even called my local Professional Liaison (PL) Leader while I was on vacation to get tips for the upcoming interview. Since reporters are not invited to attend LLL Series Meetings for privacy reasons, I decided to hold a "mock meeting" and invited some LLL members and Leaders who might be willing to drive to Luray to help me get my Group off the ground!

The interview did not take place until June, by which time I had held two more Series Meetings. Things were looking up a little, in an odd sort of way. At both of these meetings, there was only one mother in attendance (two different mothers). The odd part was that although both of these mothers were originally from Luray, both lived out of town -- one mother in Connecticut, USA! The advantage was that they knew each other.

Finally, the day of the interview came. Along with a Leader from the Harrisonburg Group and two of my friends and fellow LLL members from the Lake Ridge area, we held the mock meeting in my basement recreation room. The reporter sat nearby, listened, and asked questions. At the suggestion of my PL Leader, we talked about "The Art of Breastfeeding" and "Avoiding Difficulties."

The meeting went well. Although she didn't give too much away, the reporter seemed to have a positive attitude about breastfeeding. She took pictures of the meeting and of the mothers and their children, including one of a friend's nine-month-old in a sling. I was a little worried after she left though; the children had run around and gone more than a little "crazy." I hoped fervently that the articles would be positive and would draw more mothers to the meetings.

After a couple of weeks, the series of articles appeared in the newspaper (now the end of June). It was a full two-page spread of the newspaper and included an article on the new Group, a piece on the benefits of mother's milk, and an article on the plusses of breastfeeding for mothers and babies. There were a few minor inconsistencies or debatable facts in the article, but it was very positive, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief and joy before notifying everyone who had participated.

The article did help attendance, although not immediately. For the July meeting, only one mother attended -- again, a different mother who knew the others. However, this was a local mother who lived right in Luray. In August, I was astounded when five mothers showed up for the meeting, including one mother who had attended before, three I had contact with on the phone or by email, and one brand new mother who had read about the meetings in the newspaper.

Just this week, a mother called for information and told me she had saved the article while she was pregnant! I continue to run the meeting announcement in the same weekly newspaper the week before and the week of the meeting. LLL of Page County is still small, but we now have two official members and, so far, at least one new attendee every month.

Whether the new attendees will become members or "repeaters" remains to be seen, but we are making progress. We are helping mothers breastfeed and changing attitudes about breastfeeding in this part of rural America.

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