Ann Seacrest announced her retirement on the blog she writes for MilkWorks — the nonprofit she helped form — with the words that hundreds of nursing moms she has encouraged and supported, advocated for and loved, know a little something about: It is time to wean ...
Since its infancy, Seacrest has been the public face of MilkWorks, which does exactly what its name implies — support moms who want to breastfeed their children.
Its mission statement has never changed: Creating a healthier community by helping mothers breastfeed their babies.
When MilkWorks opened in 2001, only 10% of moms nursed their babies for the medical community’s recommended first six months of life; now that number is 25%.
When that first mom walked in determined to nurse her baby, there was no Nebraska law protecting her right to breastfeed anywhere her heart (and her baby) desired. Now there is.
There was no insurance coverage for breast pumps or lactation consultation. Now there is.
That first year, the organization birthed by a group of seven moms who gathered in a Lincoln basement with a vision had a $40,000 budget.
Money those founding mothers contributed.
This year’s budget: $2.5 million. Hard-fought money from grants and fundraisers and insurance reimbursements.
And there is a long way to go.
Seacrest was in elementary school in Watertown, South Dakota, when she came across her crib card — that small tag attached to hospital bassinets, noting the newborn’s name, birthday, weight and how baby was being fed.
Most of them said BOTTLE.
Not this one.
She never knew her mom had been a nursing mother, Seacrest said last week. And her first thought was: Oh, my gosh, why would you do that?
Her mother told her they couldn’t afford formula, Seacrest said. And formula was the modern thing — highly processed cow's milk for human babies, pushed by a powerful industry.
“I never saw a baby breastfeed.”
By the late 1970s, she’d moved to Iowa City with her husband, Kent. He was in law school; she had a degree in art and psychology. A weaver who also volunteered as a patient advocate at a women’s health care collective.
“I saw motherhood and childbirth and breastfeeding as a feminist issue. I saw them as empowerment of women. Empowering them to take care of their babies in the best way they could.”
In 1980, she would march for the Equal Rights Amendment in Chicago. In 1981, she would nurse her first of four babies.
That belief fueled her when she went back to school to become a registered nurse in her 30s.
She had become a childbirth educator (my Lamaze instructor in 1981), a lobbyist for Nebraska’s certified nurse midwife legislation, a member of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Board of Health and a lactation consultant (who supported my daughter-in-law with my grandson in 2014).
And in all those years, she remained the same calm and caring force that helped me believe in myself as a 22-year-old first-time mom.
“She has an intuition for supporting moms to find what’s best for them and their babies,” says Kathy Leeper, medical director of MilkWorks and one of its founders. "She helps moms discover the mom they can be.”
She is left-brained and right-brained, said Kaye Lidolph, another MilkWorks founder who retired as operations director in 2016. “She’s able to do the nitty-gritty, as well as being visionary.”
She’s helped moms and raised funds and designed a half-dozen MilkWorks expansions, including a location in Omaha.
She’s knitted baby hats to sell in the group's retail space, she’s hosted staff Christmas parties, handing out homemade ornaments made from old breast pump parts.
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She decided MilkWorks should have a blog and, when no one else stepped up to write it, she did.
She’s scooped snow and sprinkled ice melt so moms carrying babies wouldn’t slip.
“She was always meeting moms at all hours, on holidays,” Lidolph said. “She always said, ‘If a mom needed our help, she needed us now.’”
Lidolph remembers Seacrest taking breast pumps to the People’s City Mission for moms struggling to feed their babies. And the help she offered to a visually impaired mom who needed guidance.
She remembers when Seacrest heard that a medical equipment provider was meeting with the state’s Medicaid director to convince Medicaid to switch to lower-quality breast pumps.
“Ann talked me and another lactation consultant into going to the State Office Building to crash the meeting,” Lidolph said. “We were not given the welcome mat.”
But Seacrest was able to schedule a meeting with the director to plead their case. (The state did not make the switch.)
The MilkWorks executive director believed strongly that all women who wanted to breastfeed be afforded the opportunity, no matter their income or language. She formed a group of culturally diverse community breastfeeding educators and empowered them to support other nursing moms in their neighborhoods and community centers.
Julie Braunsroth was one of those moms.
“I’m from Colombia and nursing there is normal and accepted,” Braunsroth said. “I didn’t know when I came here that (breastfeeding) wasn’t normal, and I didn’t have my mom and my sisters and my community to help me.”
Seacrest was their leader, she said, “the glue” of the group.
“I see her as someone who doesn’t give up. She will put herself in your situation and see how I can help this mom.”
Seacrest has two grandbabies now. She’s 66. She’s ready for the next stage.
MilkWorks came about because the women behind it wanted a place like MilkWorks in their town, she said. They worked together, supported each other, to make it happen.
“When we started, no one thought we would last a year,” Seacrest says. “No one else in the country was doing what we wanted it to do.”
She calls it a grassroots “invent-the-wheel” organization.
The Centers for Disease Control called it a model program in 2013.
Two years earlier, the U.S. Surgeon General included photos of MilkWorks in its Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding report.
In 2016, MilkWorks successfully lobbied Nebraska Medicaid to add coverage for low-income mothers and their babies.
Last year, 990 mothers attended a free mothers’ group, 740 parents attended a breastfeeding class, and 2,200 babies came for free drop-in weight checks.
And every year, nearly 2,000 moms walk in and receive help from board-certified lactation consultants and MilkWorks’ medical director.
They hear this message: Any amount of milk and any time at the breast is good for you and your baby.
Seacrest knows there is more work to be done for moms and families. Big work. (“We have virtually the worst-paid maternity leave in the world.”)
And she has dreams for the future of her baby, Seacrest wrote in her blog.
“I would love for MilkWorks to be here for another generation — to serve children of our first mothers. Perhaps by then it will be time for MilkWorks to wean? Mothers will have support everywhere they turn and the job of MilkWorks will be done.”