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."
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.