Moving America Forward

5 Super-Moms Making a Difference

May 11, 2018
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5 Super-Moms Making a Difference
Moms Making a Difference
These inspirational moms are making the world a better place for all children. Photo by uniquely india/Getty Images
This Mother’s Day, NationSwell honors the women caring not just for their own broods, but for their communities too.

On any given day, a mother exhibits at least one superpower — whether it’s finding the missing Lego piece in the abyss of a playroom or staying up all night to keep tabs on a feverish toddler. One thing is certain: Motherhood is a responsibility like no other. We’ve found five exceptional mothers who not only are successfully raising their own kids, but also helping hundreds of other children and families in their own communities and beyond. Here are the women giving the definition of motherhood a much broader meaning.

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Kimberly Gomez founded STAY RVA to help Richmond public schools thrive.Photo courtesy of Kimberly Gomez

KIMBERLY GOMEZ: THE MOM WHO EMPOWERS URBAN SCHOOLS

Richmond, Virginia, has a knack for offering amazing culture — respectable art museums, innovative cuisine, historic neighborhoods — in the most accessible way, making this riverside city incredibly kid-friendly. The problem? Once kids are ready for elementary school, many families either cough up the tuition for private school or relocate to the suburbs. This is especially true for white children, with only 27 percent enrolling in the city’s public schools.

Kimberly Gomez, mom to three kids under age 6, didn’t want to fall in line with the status quo, and so last year she founded STAY RVA, a parent-led movement to support and enhance the public education system in an effort to encourage other families to stay in Richmond.

“It just didn’t seem right to have a school around the corner and not have your kids go there,” Gomez says. “It’s part of our community.”

Having spent more than a decade teaching in urban schools in Washington, D.C., and Houston, Gomez understood that tapping into the pulse of a neighborhood can create positive changes. “I started thinking about the resources that lie within people — those skill sets can be brought in, and there can be a bridge connecting the community with the school to help it thrive.”

In its first year, some of STAY (Supporting Together Area Youth) RVA’s projects included redecorating school bathrooms and staff lounges, preparing a lunch spread for custodians and starting a cross-school club, called Be the Change, to empower kids with activities like yoga and art lessons.

The changes taking place are not just within the schools; Gomez is noticing how parent volunteers are shifting their views about staying put in Richmond. Since STAY RVA’s launch party, 10 additional gatherings have taken place across different neighborhoods. Each was hosted by a local family to share ideas of what parents can do not just for their child, but for all students attending public schools in Richmond.

“I really feel the spirit in the outpouring of local business support,” says Gomez. “Everyone has so many gifts and talents and resources, and this is a movement where all of those can be used for a greater purpose.”

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“Every time a donor gives us a dollar, they are hiring us to solve a problem,” says the Miracle Foundation’s Dianne Holbrook (center).Photo courtesy of Miracle Foundation

DIANNE HOLBROOK: THE MOM WHO WANTS TO HELP 8 MILLION KIDS

Dianne Holbrook’s job is to help put the Miracle Foundation, where she’s the executive vice president, out of business by 2040 — that is, to join forces with other international organizations and find permanent homes for the estimated 8 million children around the world who live in orphanages.

Holbrook sponsored her first orphaned child in India 18 years ago, around the same time that her friend and former colleague, Caroline Boudreaux, started the Miracle Foundation on Mother’s Day in 2000. Two years later, Holbrook took her then 15-year-old son, Christopher, to meet the child. “It changed him completely,” she recalls. “He went to India as a boy and came back as a young man.” (Christopher has been sponsoring a child of his own ever since.)

It was a move that would eventually put Holbrook on a dramatically different path, from a high-profile career in network television sales to nonprofit executive.

Seeing that, even in the depths of extreme poverty, the children were beyond grateful for even the most basic displays of affection fueled Holbrook’s admiration for the foundation’s efforts. So when, last year, she received a call from Boudreaux to join the team, she jumped at the chance.

Currently, the Miracle Foundation sponsors over 7,000 children globally; has sent close to 200 kids to college; and has reunited about 500 children with their families (about half the orphans Miracle Foundation works with have a living parent who had been unable to provide for them).

Given that in the U.S., group homes and foster care have replaced traditional orphanages, the organization plans to roll out a social-networking app early next year targeted to foster families in Texas, with plans to expand to other states in the future. The app will help foster parents make sense of an incredibly complex system by providing resources, like hiring a vetted babysitter or scheduling meetings with social workers, at their fingertips.

“It’s a privilege that I was invited to be a part of this organization,” adds Holbrook. “I get to be a mom all over again.”

Serese Marotta joined Families Fighting Flu after losing her 5-year-old son, Joseph, to the virus in 2009.Photo courtesy of Families Fighting Flu

SERESE MAROTTA: THE MOM WHO FIGHTS THE FLU

Influenza may not be new, but the brutality of this past flu season has shown that it is a vicious adversary. Families Fighting Flu, a national volunteer-based advocacy nonprofit dedicated to protecting children and communities, wants to show the public what the flu really is: a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

“It’s not just a bad cold,” says Serese Marotta, chief operating officer for Families Fighting Flu in Arlington, Virginia, who lost her otherwise healthy 5-year-old son, Joseph, to the virus in 2009. “It can be a serious, highly contagious disease.”

Marotta was an environmental scientist who made sure both Joseph and his then 7-year-old sister got their flu vaccines — except at the time, the nasal spray did not protect against the strain of H1N1 her son contracted. Joseph was one of nearly 350 children in the U.S. who succumbed to the pandemic during the 2009–’10 flu season; to date, there have been more than 1,600 influenza-associated pediatric deaths since the CDC started tracking that data in 2004. “I had no idea how many healthy children lose their lives to flu every year,” says Marotta.

Six months later, she began speaking on behalf of Families Fighting Flu to local health departments, schools and coalitions. “This is a place for families just like mine,” she says of the organization. “We reach out with support because we have walked this path.” Marotta’s active involvement led her to her current role, in which she both serves as a pillar for families coping with a heartbreaking situation and raises awareness of flu as a public health concern.

By sharing her own tragic story Marotta knows her work is instrumental. “I have changed people’s mind about the flu,” she says. “I’ve had people come up to me after [a talk] and say, ‘I know I should be vaccinating, but I never realized how important it is until today.’ Knowing that I am making a difference, and potentially saving other people from being seriously affected by the flu, makes my work worthwhile.”

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Sarah Yore-Van Oosterhout opened Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates to help undocumented immigrants who couldn’t afford legal counsel.Photo courtesy of Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates

SARAH YORE-VAN OOSTERHOUT: THE MOM WHO GIVES OTHERS A VOICE

Imagine if an 8-year-old girl (falsely) accused your 12-year-old son of sexual assault, and then he was harassed by a local police officer and hauled off to jail. Now imagine how much worse it would be if you didn’t know what to do because you believe your immigration status prohibited you from advocating on behalf of your child.

“Undocumented immigrants have come to associate law enforcement with deportation, and the fear of being separated from their family is often far worse [than not reporting a crime],” says attorney Sarah Yore-Van Oosterhout, founder of Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates in Holland, Michigan.

Given that Michigan has about 150,000 undocumented residents, Lighthouse was a much-needed resource in the state. Yore-Van Oosterhout recognized that the people who would most benefit from legal counsel were the ones who could least afford it, and so in 2015 she opened Lighthouse to provide low-cost legal services, education and advocacy. To date, the nonprofit has worked with more than 650 families, helping them to understand their constitutional rights and preparing paperwork, like the guardianship of minors in the case of deportation. Lighthouse also hosts workshops at area schools, churches and businesses on immigration law and policy, and advocates on the local, state and federal levels.

As a mother to two young daughters, Yore-Van Oosterhout knows first-hand the importance of having a strong support network. “My parents come once a week to take care of my girls,” she says. “I couldn’t do the work that I do without their support.” It’s an opportunity she wants everyone to have, but current immigration laws often keep families apart. “We’re forcing them to be separated for decades and to try to survive and thrive without the support of family. It’s cruel.”

In a world that can be unwelcoming to immigrants, everyone who comes through Lighthouse’s doors are treated with the utmost dignity and respect, says Yore-Van Oosterhout. “It is so important for us that they are valued and welcomed. I hope my girls, who are at the office with me, are seeing that.”

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As CEO of New Moms, Laura Zumdahl helps provide housing and career counseling to young mothers.Photo courtesy of New Moms

LAURA ZUMDAHL: THE MOM WHO BELIEVES IN SECOND CHANCES

Motherhood is easy, said no one ever — least of all, young mothers disadvantaged by poverty, homelessness and poor social support.

“It’s hard to parent, let alone think about how to go back to school if you don’t know where you’re going to spend the night,” says Laura Zumdahl, president and CEO of New Moms in Chicago. For the past 35 years, the nonprofit has provided stable housing, job training and parental mentoring to nearly 4,000 pregnant women and mothers under the age of 25. Since Zumdahl came on the scene five years ago, the organization has doubled in size, emphasizing the importance of community support in breaking the cycle of poverty.  

“We found that one of the keys to success, especially for a family in trauma, is to blend all of the supports in one place,” says Zumdahl. “That’s the secret sauce.”

In addition to New Moms’ Transformation Center, which includes 40 apartments, Zumdahl has overseen the construction of a new building that will offer housing for an additional 18 mother-led households. She was also key in expanding the 16-week job-training program at the nonprofit’s social-enterprise candle company, Bright Endeavors.

Zumdahl’s goal at work, and at home with her three teenage stepkids, is to show that the power of mother’s love is immense and that by carving out space for moms to build up their skills, they can overcome challenges and create stronger families.

“There are a lot of people who go to bed and wonder, ‘Did what I do today matter?’” says Zumdahl. “I never think that. I know that it does matter. It’s not just about me — if New Moms wasn’t there, we’d lose generations, and that’s not OK.”

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