U.S. Women Send Breast Milk to Africa

By Christine Cupaiuolo — January 30, 2007

Foreign Policy interviews Minnesota mother Jill Youse, who decided to send her extra breast milk to children in South Africa orphaned as a result of HIV/AIDS.

“Breast milk has this fascinating aspect to it. It’s not something you look at in your freezer and say, ‘Mmmm, boy, I’m hungry.’ It’s kind of gross, but it’s also kind of cool, and there’s this element of pride to it,” said Youse. “It’s got this ick factor and this awe factor. So I had my baby and I had my breast milk, and I thought that donating seemed like an easy thing that I could do.”

Youse turned a personal mission into a national crusade and is now the founder and executive director of International Breast Milk Project, which collects and ships breast milk from U.S. women. The milk is delivered to the IThemba Lethu orphanage in Durban, which had already set up a milk bank to collect breast milk donated mainly by white South African women.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

FP: How did you send your first shipment?

JY: I did a Google search to find out how I could donate. There’s a whole network of nonprofit milk banks called HMBANA (Human Milk Banking Association of North America) that provides breast milk for sick babies in neonatal and intensive care units in the United States. I also stumbled upon an orphan clinic with a milk bank in Durban, South Africa. It’s called iThemba Lethu, which means “I have a destiny.” For some reason, I just felt I had to donate my milk to them. I figured a lot of women had already done it. So I just e-mailed them and asked them how to donate milk. And they e-mailed back saying, “Uh … we’re in South Africa. Do you realize that?”

Shipping breast milk to Africa seemed like nothing compared to waddling around for nine months, labor and delivery. I called DHL or FedEx for an estimate over the phone and found that if you wanted to ship a frozen packet to Africa, it would cost about $2,000 for a small cooler. That was expensive, but I was hell bent on getting my milk to Africa. So I thought I’d fly it there myself. That would be cheaper, and then I’d get to visit Africa, too. What ended up happening is that someone from iThemba Lethu was visiting the United States and was flying back to South Africa. I was living close to St. Louis at the time, and my husband and I drove about six and a half hours to Chicago and met him at the airport. We had the milk on dry ice; we checked it in through security and followed all the flying-breast-milk-on-an-airplane protocols at the time. The guy checked it in with his luggage, and it arrived safely the next day with him. So the first shipment was free.

FP: How did other mothers start taking an interest in your project?

JY: The local media picked up on the trip to Chicago, and before I realized it, I was the person to contact for people who wanted to donate their milk to African babies. Two weeks after the first shipment, which was in April, I called DHL and asked them if they would donate the second shipment. They said yes, and within 48 hours, the plane was ready to go with the milk on board. It happened really fast. FedEx donated the third shipment, which was on Thanksgiving. That was milk from about 10 moms nationwide. And now we have 500 applications for the next shipment. I guess there was an interest among women in the United States who wanted to do anything they could to help children affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa.

If you want to learn more, ABCNews did a story about IThemba Lethu last fall. Here’s video footage and a transcript.

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