On a loading dock outside a nondescript warehouse in the sleepy Los Angeles suburb of Monrovia, men and women in suits join mothers with babies strapped in slings and strollers as toddlers race around their knees. As the last pallet of boxes emerges from the warehouse, they break into a spontaneous round of applause.
Inside those boxes is what they affectionately call "liquid gold" — human breast milk donated by mothers across the United States.
For more information about the International Breast Milk Project or to apply to be a donor, go to: www.breastmilkproject.org.
This latest shipment is the largest yet for the International Breast Milk Project group. Nine thousand bottles of frozen breast milk have been carefully packed in dry ice. That's 440 gallons of breast milk, or 50,000 ounces. It's enough to feed six infants for up to one year.
Any way you look at it — it's a lot of milk.
It is bound for a home for orphaned children in Durban, South Africa. Three infants will be able to use the milk right away. The rest will be stored or shared with other facilities that help orphaned children and infants who are HIV positive.
For these children, doctors say, healthy human breast milk can have lifesaving properties.
"Breast milk satisfies more than just nutrition because it has a lot of immune properties in it," said Dr. Anna Coutsoudis, a professor of pediatrics and founder of the iThemba Lethu home for orphans. "It helps to keep the children healthy, prevents them from getting things like diarrhea and pneumonia. And most importantly for us, is the HIV-infected children. They, particularly because of their depressed immunity, really do well on breast milk. I mean, it is phenomenal the difference."
One Woman's Determination
Jill Youse is the woman behind the project.
In early 2006, Youse had a freezer full of extra breast milk and wanted to donate it to babies in need.
"I just Googled 'donate breast milk' and came across an orphan home in Durban, South Africa, and decided that's where I'd send my milk," Youse said.
"I thought other women had done it. So when I e-mailed them and said, 'Hey I want to be a donor. What's the process?' And they said, 'Do you realize we are in South Africa?' I said, 'Yeah. Haven't other moms done this before?' And apparently no other moms had."
In fact, some of the workers in Durban thought Youse was out of her mind.
"She found this Web site and she wants to send her milk," said Penny Reimers, a lactation consultant at the home. "I said to her 'Well that's wonderful, but logistically that would be impossible.' But Jill is a very determined woman and [a] woman with a vision and passion, and she just made it work."
The first shipment in April 2006 was Youse's milk alone. She had to drive to a Chicago airport from her home in Columbia, Mo., to meet someone who happened to be flying to South Africa and could check her box filled with 1,000 ounces of frozen breast milk as baggage.
Fast forward to October 2007.
After a story last year on ABC's "World News With Charles Gibson" and a couple of mentions on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," hundreds of women volunteered to donate breast milk. About 439 donors are now registered donors, and 2,000 women have filed applications to donate milk.
'Need for Milk Never Ends'
Youse now runs the nonprofit International Breast Milk Project and has involved a major processor called Prolacta Bioscience and an international shipping company called Quick International Courier. Both companies are donating their services.
Donors to the International Breast Milk Project go through a rigorous screening process. They are tested for drug use and disease. They ship their breast milk to Prolacta's Monrovia facility in specially provided sterile containers. There the milk is tested for bacteria, a DNA test is done to ensure the milk came from the donor and the milk is pasteurized.
So far, the donated milk has helped feed about a dozen children at the South African home for orphaned children.
"I think the need for milk never ends," Reimers said. "We always need milk. And none of the milk ever goes to waste. So as much milk as we get we are able to use. And if we can't use it, we pass it on to other homes."
In New York, Shawn Fields is nursing her 9-month-old son, Milo, and storing extra milk to donate to the organization.
"I just had so much milk, I had bags falling out of my freezer, and so rather than throwing it out I heard through family friends that somebody was donating milk. And I looked into it a little bit more and did some research on the Internet and found this organization. I just thought it would be a great way to use this milk rather than throwing it out," Fields said.
Youse believes it's a way for new moms to feel they're doing something in addition to staying up all night and caring for a newborn.
"Moms are opening up their freezers and saying, 'Oh my God, I'm an overnight philanthropist,'" she said.
With so many donors coming forward, it's become cost-prohibitive for Prolacta to process, package and ship all of the milk to Africa at no cost. In the future, it will send a quarter of the donated milk to Africa. The rest will go to help premature infants born in this country, with Prolacta paying the International Breast Milk Project for that milk.
Youse is also looking for more babies in need in Africa. She is in discussions with the government of Tanzania — she hopes one day soon her group can send its liquid gold to needy children in that country too.