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The Difference A Leader Makes

Diane Bengson
Bellbrook OH USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 37 No. 4, August-September 2001, pp. 75-77

As Leaders, we may not see the ultimate results of the work we do. A mother calls and we never learn how her situation turned out. We offer suggestions and wonder if they were helpful for that mother. A mother attends one meeting but doesn't return. We may question if our time spent on the phone, or the hours spent planning and leading meetings, makes any difference.

When we become volunteers for LLL, we don't do it for praise or thanks. We do it because we care about mothers, babies, and satisfying breastfeeding relationships. Yet, we do like to know that we, as Leaders, can make a long-lasting impact through La Leche League.

I asked some Leaders to share situations when they knew their actions had a positive influence. Some Leaders told how they had helped a specific mother or baby through direct breastfeeding help. Other Leaders were influential by example, or by providing the forum of a warm and supportive LLL Series Meeting.

Several Leaders mentioned receiving thank-yous from mothers. Other Leaders keep a file of the notes they receive, and take the time to keep track of the verbal thanks as well. Once in a while, a Leader receives a thank-you note many years later. Susan Lavoie remembers receiving a warm note seven years after helping a mother of twins. The mother wrote, "I may not owe you money, but I sure am in debt to you for your kindness."

Occasionally, a mother finds another way to say thank you. Karen Gromada tells of receiving a bouquet of beautiful, aromatic flowers from a mother she helped. Amy Uecker received this phone message: Amy, this is Tammy. Today is Elizabeth's first birthday and I just nursed her to sleep. I know this would not have been possible if it was not for all your help and support in the first two months. Thank you so much.Amy adds, "I kept that message on my machine for weeks."

Margaret Sondey was surprised when a mother whom she spoke with on the LLLI Hotline made an effort to thank her. She relates, "I was working the LLLI Hotline one night over a year ago, when I received a call from a mother in the hospital. As I spoke with this very frightened and tearful new mother, I used many of the skills that are reinforced during the Leader Applicant period and in HRE sessions. The call probably lasted 15 minutes. When it ended, I wasn't really certain that I had adequately addressed all of the mother's questions, although I did believe that I had supplied enough information so she could begin to sort through her fears and concerns.A few weeks later, I was surprised by another long-distance call from the very same mother. This time a very happy, articulate, and self-assured voice greeted me. She explained that after her discharge, she had called LLLI to track me down to thank me!

Kathryn Major (Missouri, USA) says she gets many thanks from the mothers she helps through the LLLI Web site and Help Forms. One simple, heartfelt thank-you she received said, "I really want to thank you for communicating with me on this. It means more than you know."

Suzanne Crable tells of receiving thanks from a mother during a tragic time in the mother's life:

I first spoke to Emily at the end of February. Her daughter, Mary, was born eight weeks early and weighed three pounds, three ounces. She was doing well, receiving only human milk, and Emily and I talked about pumping. Emily called again about a month later. Mary was home, though she wasn't [nursing] on the breast. I did a home visit where I met the family and we worked on ways to help Mary go directly to the breast. It would be slow work but Emily and her husband, Paul, were determined to have Mary not only receive human milk, but to breastfeed.

A few weeks later we spoke again. Emily was a bit discouraged about the pumping, her supply, and the challenges of getting Mary to the breast. I suggested that she continue to try until the next Series Meeting in about 10 days, and after that decide whether to stay with it or let it go. Emily and Mary came to the meeting and were glowing. Mary was close to six pounds, almost to her due date, and breastfeeding! The Group was very inspired by her efforts, and we admired how pretty and healthy Mary looked.

A former Group member called me in tears a day and a half later telling me Mary had died unexpectedly. Emily then called me and, through her tears and mine, thanked me for helping her and Mary to breastfeed. Emily repeated several times, "the week that she was breastfeeding was the happiest of my life."

While Emily was grateful to me, I cannot tell you how much she and her husband showed me about love and devotion as expressed through breastfeeding. Going a bit out of my way made all the difference in the world to this family. I discovered there could be a time when helping could be the difference between a treasured memory, and deep regrets about what might have been.

Now and then, we indirectly learn we've helped a mother. Nancy Jo Bykowski (Illinois, USA) says, "I helped a mother once who had concerns about her baby not eating well, and talked with her repeatedly on the phone. We also went to the same church. A couple of years later, I found out from our minister that she had told him I had been a blessing to her during those months when she phoned me so often. Years later, our sons, born a month apart, were on the same soccer team together."

Occasionally, an odd coincidence unites us with a mother we've helped. Several years ago, new neighbors moved in. Susan had a three-year-old daughter and was pregnant with her second child. 'When she found out I was an LLL Leader, she told me she had called a Leader in Bellbrook when her daughter was a week old. I'm the only Leader in Bellbrook, so we realized she had talked to me. Susan said she had found my support helpful for getting over some rough spots, and later went on to nurse her daughter for 18 months. With her second child, she joined our Group, hosted a meeting, and nursed him until he was over two years old.

Sometimes we influence a mother simply by our actions, or by something we do that we are quite unaware of. Scheryl Schafrath writes about this:

When my first child, Nathan, was two years old, I brought him to a breastfeeding support group meeting (there was no LLL in our area yet). When I nursed him, I felt all these eyes watching me in awe. Most of the mothers there had small babies, and Nathan was the only toddler. One of my friends, Becky, who was at the meeting, told me later that she was shocked to see an older child nursing. Becky, plus a few others who were at that meeting, went on to nurse their babies past a year.

I had a similar experience. Before I was a Leader, I had a young friend who had a baby shortly before her 16th birthday. We had spent quite a bit of time together, and she had observed me nursing my son, who was a year older than her baby. She decided to breastfeed and told her doubtful mother, "If Diane can do it, so can 1!" She went on to nurse for seven months.

Sometimes we influence a mother simply by making LLL philosophy and meetings available. Many Leaders report about mothers who were relieved to hear that their feelings about breastfeeding and being with their babies were shared by LLL. Celestia Shumway (Utah, USA) mentioned an employed mother who felt supported by the LLL Group with her first child, and returned four years later during her second pregnancy. "She joined again after I did my membership pitch and she told me 'I'd forgotten how good those magazines were. I took the one home you gave me last month (from the new mother packet) and read it almost cover to cover. I cried after reading some of those stories. I realized I wanted LLL back.'" Celestia commented, "I felt so good!"

Sometimes we have a positive influence on a mother when we least expect it. An experience I have had several times is seeing a mother at a meeting or talking with her on the phone and thinking that she is turned off by our conversation or the meeting. I'm so surprised later when the mother calls back, or returns to the next meeting. Martha Crone had this experience, too:

One of my favorite stories is when I invited an acquaintance of mine to an LLL meeting when I was first a Leader. She came with her three-week-old, and sat down and started to give her a bottle of formula. Later in the meeting she asked how to wean off supplements, as her doctor had advised supplements for weight gain. She got good information, but her body language and her quiet, fast leavetaking before the meeting was over made me think she didn't like the meeting. I remember saying to my co-Leader, 'Well, we won't be hearing from her again.'

Three weeks later, I saw her in church and she thanked me for the meeting. She said, "I went home and told my husband, 'I'm psyched to breastfeed!"' She successfully weaned from the supplements, nursed for a year, and went on to nurse two more beautiful daughters. I was so glad I had invited her to the meeting, and felt happy to have been so wrong about her reaction to the meeting.

Mothers remember when we help them. Julia Troidl writes about how pleased she was when a mother remembered her.

"I ran into Nancy at a clothing store, while we were both shopping. I recognized her instantly, though she didn't see me. I was surprised that her daughter was now a vibrant, running preschooler. Had it really been that long? I said, "Hi, Nancy" and was ready to introduce myself when she said, "Julia! Hello!" She introduced me to her daughter, and explained that I had been so helpful to her when she was just a baby. We shared a hug and went on our way. Now I still smile when I think she recognized me after all those years, for you see, Nancy is blind. Helping her with her breastfeeding difficulties was a real challenge for me, and certainly a lesson I will never forget. It's moments like these that make me believe that being an LLL Leader is wonderful!

While it is rewarding when mothers tell us how our help or example has influenced them, it can be doubly rewarding to find out we've influenced our own children. When they are small, Leaders report that their children often breastfeed their toys and lead LLL meetings with their dolls. Betsy Waber tells about her weaned twin sons. "I asked them what they thought nursing was, and they both immediately responded that nursing was love. We did have the talk about nursing as food and other things, but I've always been very pleased that what they remember about nursing is that it's love."

Ann Calandro (North Carolina, USA) writes: "My son is 17 and works in a shoe store. The manager's wife is pregnant. My son asked him if she was going to breastfeed, and he said, 'No, that's gross!' My son explained to him how important it was for the baby, and has been working on him to at least read about it or go to a class. I am surprised that he would do this at his age. It's tough to stick your neck out and get involved."

Elaine Williamson (Kansas, USA) relates that her sixteen-year-old daughter, Betony, chose breastfeeding as the topic for competitive debating. "My daughter and her partner chose to use as their affirmative case: the increase in privacy in employment situations for the breastfeeding mother. They have had a very interesting and successful season debating this case (they are heading to Nationals with it!). What has been so exciting about all this is the subtle and not-so-subtle education that many teenagers and adults have received about breastfeeding."

Most of the ways Leaders influence others are through small, one-person-at-a-time exchanges. Scheryl Schafrath writes, "When I get frustrated or down, I try to think of all the small successes I have helped bring about. I have to hope that those small successes will lead to greater changes someday. When they first began LLL, the Founders had no idea they would be fulfilling such a great need for mothers worldwide. And look at how our wonderful organization has grown and continues to grow!"

We all make an impact in our communities, whether anyone thanks us directly or not. When one Leader gets a thank-you or a compliment, it can uplift and sustain us all. It reminds us of the important work we do, and gives each of us hope that the phone calls we take and the meetings we lead do make a difference. We ARE making a difference!


Bengson, D., ed. Sharing in the circle. Ohio/West Virginia. The Circle, Fall 1999; 4:19-21.

Coffield, M.M. Thriving in our own way. LEAVEN October-November 1998; 34(5):107.

DeSchepper, C. Evaluating your effectiveness as a Leader. LEAVEN February-March 1999; 35(l):6.

Good-Mojab, C. Helping the visually impaired or blind mother breastfeed. LEAVEN June-July 1999; 35(3):51-56.

Kendall-Tackett, K. Breastfeeding support: when it works, when it doesn't. LEAVEN August-September 1999; 35(4):94.

Pruitt, E. Retired nursing mothers at the World Walk. LEAVEN December 2000-January 2001; 36(6):119.

Sachetti, D., ed. LEADER'S HANDBOOK. Schaumburg, Illinois: LLLI, 1998; p. 1-2, 41.

Stoneman, L. When the worst happens: helping a mother who has lost a baby. LEAVEN February-March 2000; 36(l):6.

White, M. LLL Leaders-valuable beyond measure. LEAVEN December 1996-January 1997; 32(6):92.

Diane Bengson, a Leader for 12 years with the South Suburban Dayton Group, Ohio, USA is the Area Leaders' Letter Editor for LLL of Ohio. She is also the author of HOW WEANING HAPPENS (LLLI 1999). Diane and her husband, John, have three children: Shaun, 18; Joel, 13; and Emma, 6.

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