From the outside, Mamas for Mamas is modest.
It’s in a storefront in a ‘70s style strip mall, dwarfed by nearby high-rises that house some of the region’s power companies.
But step inside and it becomes immediately clear there’s something more impressive taking shape than the building’s outer shell portends.
Those inside buzz with an excitement that comes from creating positive change in the world around them.
Shannon Christensen is at the helm of this small army of women. She started Mamas for Mamas in 2014, with a Facebook page aimed at tapping into the sharing economy.
“It was a bit about ‘let’s be mamas together,’” she said. “Instead of selling, let’s give and share what we need.”
It was a way forward that had both economic and social payback.
There was less impact on landfills to pass down items that children have done through and it created social ties that local women were looking for.
The need, she said, was demonstrated through the uptake. When she created the page there were 32 members. Within weeks there were 300 on board and by the end of the third month there were 3,000 members. Today Mamas for Mamas Facebook page has 12,000 devotees.
“As it started to grow we realized there was a need,” said Christensen, and it extended beyond material items. Once the surface was scratched, women started talking about struggles that were putting them at risk.
“Mamas were living in poverty in Kelowna and going without because they felt a stigma (associated with) reaching out,” she said.
For many, rent accounted for 90 per cent of their income and they didn’t have the ability to make what was left over meet all their needs.
“It wasn’t about not being good enough it was not having enough,” she said.
Once Christensen and her army of volunteers learned about the need they started to build a small empire out of her basement and two storage containers.
Then, this May, they made a leap. The moved into the building with green floor and purple walls — efficient, but not that inviting.
“We wanted to make it comforting,” said Christensen.
To do that they turned to Jillian Harris, the Kelowna based co-host of the home improvement TV show Love it or List It. The local celebrity has been a avid supporter of Mamas and its mission and she immediately rose to the challenge of finding a paint colour, as requested. Then she went full steam ahead with a complete revamp.
”She came in here and went, ‘oh girls, we have so much work to do… ,’” said Christiansen. “She dipped her toe in, then jumped in the deep-end in about three days. It’s been surreal.”
Now in what she calls a “space of hope” Christensen and her team can provide mental health counselling, at risk comprehensive intakes—where they can access housing, health and safety needs — or simply provide warm gloves to those who need to stretch their budget.
The icing on the cake is that Harris wading in created a groundswell of support to meet the latter needs with stores offering up a significant supply of high-quality, new goods for both children and mothers.
“This started in my garage and three storage units and a van, so the fact we’re in a 4,800 square feet space that has been renovated by Sticks and Stones and Jillian Harris … and that isn’t just functional, it’s beautiful, filled with new goods that we get to give to mamas to improve their quality of life without breaking the bank,” said Christensen. “It’s going to make me cry.”
The more slick appearance of the operation isn’t going to sway Christensen from her starting point. The 20,000-plus items donated every month will still be shared among those who need it.
It’s just that more was needed and Christensen and her team weren’t willing to throw up their hands in despair when the needs started to make themselves known.
“We don’t believe in helplessless,” she said. “Where there’s a mama there’s a way.”
It’s a philosophy that keeps former clients returning.
Carly Banks once tapped into Mamas for Mamas network when she was in need and now she’s poised to become one of the pillars of support so many women in the city need.
“I felt like I didn’t have a place in the world—other than the place to be a mom—and it felt a bit stifling,” she said, describing what brought her in.
The network she found was a step toward strengthening her reserves.
Similarly, Tanya Jahntz has found cause to move forward with the help of Christensen and now is a regular presence at Mamas for Mamas, helping those in need.
She lost both of her parents to cancer, and shortly after found herself to be homeless.
“Christensen gave me a position at Mamas to help build my self confidence again,” she said.
And, from the way she held herself, and the ease in which she deals with those who walked through the door, it’s clear that Jahntz has found that confidence.
Christensen wants to keep passing that on and since becoming a registered charity in January, she can apply for grants that will keep the community she’s built alive and thriving.
The model is so successful that it’s spreading. What started as a Facebook page in Kelowna has now caught on south of the border and across Canada, with 30 chapters sharing the name.
Christensen said that it’s not so much overwhelming, as invigorating.
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