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Q & A with SHANNON CHRISTENSEN - FOUNDER OF MAMAS for MAMAS ~ WITHINUS TEAM

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Q & A with SHANNON CHRISTENSEN - FOUNDER OF MAMAS for MAMAS ~ WITHINUS TEAM

At withinUs we are extremely lucky to be part of a generous, active, and healthy community. Our coworkers, customers, and network inspire us every day, and with this inspiration we are honoured to give back to these communities. This year 100% of the proceeds from our Mother's Day gift bundles will be donated to the Mamas for Mamas wellness section

Mamas for Mamas is a national charitable organization that supports mothers in crisis, and provides ongoing support to low income mamas and their children. We had the honour of speaking with the Founder of Mamas - Shannon Christensen - about what inspired her to start this life-changing organization, how she chooses her priorities, and how the partnership with Jillian Harris has helped boost awareness for Mamas. 

Q: What inspired/motivated you to start Mamas For Mamas?

A: A sense of belonging is the strongest predictor of positive mental health… I was a stay at home mom/masters student with a 3 year old and a 4 month old and felt like we needed a better way to connect as moms. I was selling things online only to go buy them online from another mom and wondered what it would be like to just donate and trade them with one another. I also felt like in the online mommy groups I was part of, there was so much competition and judgement around our different approaches to parenting and I wondered what it would be like if we had a safe space where everything was given away for free, and we used kindness and respect as the currency… I knew it would be a hard sell but I really wanted to give it a try, to use kindness as a currency among our local mama community to reduce the vibe of competition and help people redistribute goods at the same time seemed to be a huge hit. I was struggling at the time with the sudden death of my father, at 53 years old he died of a heart attack hiking the day after my wedding in 2009. I felt a huge hole in my heart and felt like this opportunity to unite mamas could reduce the despair I felt in losing one of my closest allies, one of my biggest fans and cheerleaders. I was also raised by a unicorn of a mama who selflessly took in any child or teen she knew was struggling to offer them a warm meal and often a safe place to stay… and with 4 teenage daughters and a pre-teen son, she came across a lot of kids in need. She learned this from her mother, my nana who helped to start the motherless babies home in Lagos Nigeria in the early 1970’s. They taught me that whenever we have enough, we should build a longer table not a higher fence. My Nana and I just spoke about this the other day, and although she may be losing her memory for the little things at 94, she remembers vividly the day I told her about this group I wanted to start and the excitement she felt when I told her I had done it.

Above: Shannon (right), her Mama (centre), and her Nana (left)

Q: What is the most fulfilling thing about being a part of Mamas for Mamas? Do you have a favourite, heartwarming story you can share?

A: The most fulfilling thing about Mamas for Mamas is that we solve problems with and for Mamas and caregivers who feel like they’ve tried everything. When they felt like they were going to fall through the cracks, when they made just too much money last year to access the Food Bank or rental subsidy, our social worker finds a way to make sure there is no mama left behind. As a team we think around corners and find answers to chronic and episodic barriers faced by families trying hard to overcome poverty and related issues. We help Mamas see their potential, to see their capacity and their resilience to overcome postpartum depression, anxiety and negative coping mechanisms with a hand up, not a hand out approach.
It’s so hard to choose one story but I have a special story about a mama who came to us while living in her car last year, fleeing abuse and 8 months pregnant. She left her abuser but didn’t have much gas and didn’t get very far, he tracked her down and dragged her home… Soon after this, she wrote to us and shared that she was in a very unsafe relationship and didn’t think she could protect her baby and didn’t know what else to do. Our social worker and general manager met with her and provided options, they provided a judgement free space where they could make a plan to first get her somewhere safe and go from there. The shelters were full, so we looked further outside of town, we found her a place in a neighbouring community willing to take her in. We got her gas so she could drive there, clothing and supplies so she didn’t have to go back to her abuser to collect her things, made a police report, and got her out of there. Not only did she make it there safe, with the support of the mama community she felt so supported and so hopeful that she realized she could not only keep her baby but she could keep her safe too.

 

Above: Shannon with Jillian Harris and Team 

Q: How have partnerships, such as the one with Jillian Harris helped boost awareness for the organization?

A: Our partnership with Jillian has changed how we do the business of charity, I’m certain this is a huge part of our exponential growth over the last couple years. She has so generously shared her social capital and influence to encourage people to give back to those in need through Mamas, to recycle goods from mama to mama or company to charity to reduce the impact on the environment while ensuring no mama or child go without the basic necessities required to provide for their families. This has allowed us the opportunity to work with amazing companies and brands who have the capacity to help stock sections of our karma market with products these families could never otherwise afford, such as the Collagen provided by WithinUs Naturals for the wellness wall, the thousands of diapers donated from BabyGanics, special Jilly rompers from Smash Tess and amazing baby products from dozens of smaller Canadian companies to make these mamas feel as special as we know they are. Instead of fundraising or constantly writing grants to buy basic necessities and items to put in our Karma market, she donates personally and inspires companies to donate brand new product, overstock, slightly imperfect items (such as the Jilly rompers that were such a great hit!) and everything in between to ensure our mamas have what they need and so does the organization as a whole. Coming together with companies like Saje Wellness who donates not just product regularly, their regional manager comes to spritz and massage us into wellness and they also donate thousands of dollars to our Mams At Risk program through her Jilly diffuser launched last year … this is just one example of the above and beyond support we receive by virtue of working with Jilly as a partner, and honestly I’m not sure she will ever truly understand the impact she has had on this organization and on me personally. It gets me in all the feels.

Q: We heard that Mamas for Mamas is going national – what does this mean for Mamas for Mamas, and where do you plan to expand to?

A: Mamas for Mamas has expanded digitally across Canada since our inception, providing an online platform in every community to donate, share, support and connect with fellow mamas to reduce the cost of living and create an all inclusive sense of community. This year, we have chosen 2 new flagship locations out of our 54 digital satellite chapters to grow to the next level. We are working hard on our Toronto and Vancouver expansions, wherein we will open the fully functioning office space with social work, resource navigation, poverty relief and mental health support just like we have here in Kelowna. This formal expansion is going to complement our digital expansion by moving offline and further into the community in the fastest growing locations, so the faster they grow the closer they will be to their very own Mamas for Mamas office in their local communities.

 

Q: You speak about the importance of picking your priorities – how do you accomplish this, and how have these priorities changed since becoming a mama and entrepreneur?

A: I have never been clearer on my priorities, and so challenged in trying to enforce them. I have had to develop the capacity to say no, and not feel bad about it and am still working on that. I am reminded often by my right-hand mama that being kind doesn’t mean you can’t say no… let that soak in for a second for every mama out there who says yes and breeds resentment. My priorities are my children and my family, at times I have missed very important meetings to take my 94 year old nana to the hospital. I struggle with being a workaholic and love my third baby so much and often struggle to maintain boundaries regarding how much attention she gets versus my boys. I used to be a Martha Stewart type stay at home mom while finishing my masters and raising my boys, everything had a place and it was super important my home was beautiful… . Nothing was ever more important than a perfectly clean home, a gourmet dinner with themed place settings and an A+ on whatever assignment I was working on. Then I finished school and started working as a forensic social worker and that all of a sudden challenged my children and my home as a top priority. I balanced as well as I could, but I remember getting my first job offer at a forensic counselling clinic and realizing it started on the same day as my oldest son’s first day of kindergarten… I wish I could say I made it work and brought him to his first day of school, but I didn’t… I went to work and cried into my coffee, guilty for the decision I had made and wondering if it was ever going to get any easier… It didn’t. Since building Mamas and becoming an entrepreneur, I have had to really reevaluate my priorities because I realized that things weren’t slowing down and likely wouldn’t for some time. I had hoped I could just sleep less and do it all, but there literally were not enough hours in the day… So, my kids costumes are bought in a bag not made at home, I am not a Martha Stewart type homemaker anymore, in fact I was mom shamed for a dirty house last year and it hit me really hard…. It hit hard because it highlighted how much that particular priority had changed and I felt embarrassed that I had let myself slip. It also made me realize I spend more time with my kids when I’m home and concern myself more with their happiness than the cleanliness of their rooms, they might have a store bought costume but I am always there to watch their concerts and volunteer at their school parties, because it’s important to them and therefor it’s a priority for me. I realized that I gladly traded the desire for a perfect home for a perfectly imperfect charity with some of the coolest humans I could ever have asked to meet, and community that makes my heart full and my soul glow. When I reflect back on everything I felt was so important at the time, I realize how much I’ve gained by putting things into perspective and enjoying spending my time where it provides the most meaning.

Q: Making time for yourself, and self-care can be difficult at the best of times, how do you encourage self-care for the mamas you help support?

A: I have started consciously putting some time aside for me, to read a book unrelated to work or writing in my journal even if it means I don’t fold the last load of laundry. I let our mamas know that even 5 minutes is better than nothing and whatever you love to do, find a few moments in the day to do it… even if it means staying in your car for a few minutes before picking up the kids at daycare or school to do car karaoke to their favourite song or call a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while.

 

ABOUT SHANNON:

Shannon Christensen (born Kimmitt) was born and raised in Kelowna, BC and lives here with her husband of 9 years and 2 little boys. Shannon is passionate about her friends, family and her community. With a BA in Psychology and Master’s of counselling psychology, she has a passion for working with marginalized populations and used this drive to start Mamas for Mamas; a registered non-profit organization dedicated to reducing the negative impact of poverty on low income mothers and their families. Shannon has been recognized as a top 40 under 40 recipient, A Woman to Watch, and was a top 3 finalist for Woman of the Year through The City of Kelowna Civic and Community Awards.