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The Mother Behind All Mothers and Her Determined Quest to End Poverty

Underprivileged moms and children in Nashville have a guardian angel, and she’s inviting you to come along.

Imagine a world where no mother loses sleep over how to feed her baby. Where no child is without a warm blanket in the winter and a clean shirt on their back. Where curiosity supersedes condemnation. Where, instead of frowning upon someone’s cycle of addiction or misfortune, it’s easy to remember that, in this life, we don’t all start off at the same distance from the finish line. Where the question isn’t so much “What can I do for my children?” but “What can I do for all children?” 

Where we don’t merely gaze across distant borders, continents or oceans for those who need help being walked back to safety, but to the untraveled corners and unfamiliar edges of our own towns and cities. Where we don’t stop at tossing temporary fixes at heart-breaking symptoms, but explore the origin of inequality. And, ultimately, where it’s understood that poverty, which affects one out of five children in the United States, isn’t a “you” or a “they” problem, but an “us” problem.

Of course, that world doesn’t exist. At least not yet. But, for Janie Busbee, founder of the explosively successful Nashville-based nonprofit, Mother to Mother, which has distributed more than 15 million baby and children items to date, and who was declared by her own mother to have “come out of the womb obsessed with inequality,” it’s a vision she casts daily. One pregnant with the kinds of doors she’s willing to swing open and the kinds of battles she’s willing to confront. Head on and heart blazing.

Altruism was organically sewn into her from birth, though its seed was fertilized with a fiery passion for helping children in the early 2000s, when she and her husband were living in Boston for his retina fellowship. During this time, Janie enjoyed a successful career at Morgan Stanley, and spent her free hours volunteering at a battered women’s shelter. Except she noticed something troubling. While the organization offered an arsenal of tools for women, it offered nothing for the children of these women. This observation inspired her to create a few programs in the Boston area. 

One day, a mother wandered into the shelter with her 5 year-old son, who was in need of a backpack to hold his school books. But the shelter only had one to spare, and it boasted a glittery Cinderella design.  “All I could do was scratch my head and say, ‘We’re in America, in this day and age, and we’re going to send this little boy, whose life is in upheaval, to school with a Cinderella backpack? Where he’ll be teased by the other kids? There’s got to be a better way,’” Janie says. 

On instinct, she phoned some power players in the area to help her gather backpacks for the kids. Within days, as a result of her bravery and persistence, there were roughly 20,000 backpacks being delivered. “I thought to myself, ‘Ok, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to start a charity that helps mothers and children,’” Janie says. 

It was 2004 and Janie and her husband were in the midst of packing up their life in Boston to put down fresh roots in Nashville, as he was joining Tennessee Retina. Before the move, Janie asked her attorney to set up Mother to Mother. She then bid farewell to the finance world in order to spend her days venturing to hospitals in and around Music City–exploring the dialogues and paradigms of its nurses and social workers, and scoping out the most urgent needs within the communities. 

Her first program was “A Baby Shower in a Bag,” which supplied essentials like diapers, wipes and pacifiers to new moms in need. And, from there, she kept going.

“I quickly realized I wasn’t confronting an issue where some mothers are in need of a few things, or even a lot of things. Some mothers have no love, no money, no training, no support and no opportunities. They need everything you can imagine,” Janie says.

In an age where so many of us fill Pinterest boards with baby shower inspirations and gorgeously-styled maternity photoshoots we wish to emulate, a staggering number of women give birth without an essential item or a well wish to their name. For them, the concern over purchasing a car seat isn’t about mulling over which model is the plushest or the safest. Or even the most cost-effective. It’s the luxury of owning one at all. 

This painful discovery inspired Janie’s feet to continue hitting the pavement each day. It’s what motivated her to secure a warehouse with shelves that would always be stocked–and continuously emptied–of diapers, formulas, cribs and bouncers.

Now, 18 years later, she has 268 partners, including Vanderbilt Children’s and Safe Haven, with daily distributions to hospitals, schools, shelters and foster care programs, among other organizations, including a program that stretches into rural areas. 

“From adoption agencies to potential foster families, anybody who helps kids, we help,” Janie says.

She welcomes donations from locals all day long. And she’s attracted the support of celebrities as well, including Jessica Alba, who provides boxes of Honest diapers and other personal care items. Kristin Cavallari, who founded Uncommon James and Little James, chose Mother to Mother as her exclusive charity in the United States. Janie’s shelves are filled with adorable onesies from Kristin’s baby and kid brand, and she receives intricate pieces of jewelry to be gifted to the moms, nurses and social workers on holidays.

In recent years, she founded Give a Damn, a line of merchandise with totes, t-shirts and hoodies, among other stylish items, that pour 100 percent of its profits into Mother to Mother. “Some people won’t support Mother to Mother directly, but they shop, so I started it to create another revenue source to help low-income moms,” Janie says.

Also a mother herself, to a 16 year-old son who attends Montgomery Bell Academy, despite her privilege, she refers to the mothers and children she helps as “my people.” She's not interested in being anyone’s savior from afar, or even at arm’s length; she’s embraced them as her friends. She meets them at their story so that she can empower them to move beyond it.

She speaks tenderly of a young woman named Sydney, who was 22 years old, 9 months pregnant, living out of a van and struggling with addiction the day she waddled into Janie’s warehouse. Her waxing belly was fully exposed because she couldn’t afford maternity clothes. Her shoulders were turned in and her gaze was lowered and sad, as though harboring a world of grief and pain.

Janie counseled her, got her into a rehabilitation program, helped her secure a job, an apartment and a car, and provided all essentials, including a carseat, for her newborn son, Leo. Heartbreakingly, Sydney died in a tragic car accident when her baby boy was just 3 ½ months old–less than a year after being taken under Janie’s wing. But, because Leo had been strapped tightly into his carseat–something Sydney never could have afforded otherwise–he survived. 

“Working to solve poverty is about so much more than giving people food and clothes. It saves lives in ways that many people don’t even dream about. And it can change the whole story of things, generationally,” says Janie.

Janie knows that some people don’t resonate with her mission, but that doesn’t give her any pause. Instead, it adds fuel to it.

“I know some people think what I do is weird. I’ve never been poor. I quit a successful career in finance and I pay myself nothing. I can’t give you an impressive reason as to why I’m motivated to do what I do. But I can tell you that I genuinely lose sleep over inequality. That’s why I won’t stop. We need to come together as humans, stop punishing the poor and fix this,” she says.

So, then, what’s Janie’s next goal for Mother to Mother? A multi-dimensional plan of education, employment and mentorship that thrives on a bedrock of encouragement and love.

 “The only way to break the cycle of poverty is to create opportunities for those in need. And, while I think there should be a Mother to Mother in every city, I know that I can give a mother diapers but, in a month, she’s going to need more,” Janie says.

Which means her long-term goal is to no longer be needed. “It’s easy for a wealthy person to look at someone who’s struggling and say, ‘Why don’t they just work harder?’ but the truth is that our world is segregated by money. This is why my mission has always been to solve poverty. I love what I do, but I would love even more to close my doors due to there no longer being a need for social services.”

And, most significantly, she’s got a challenge for every heart who might find itself being tugged by this story.

 “Get involved with people you have no reason to meet. You won’t find them at your country club or favorite restaurant. They aren’t going to fall into your lap, but they exist and their needs exist. Step out of your comfort zone and learn about them as human beings. And, if you can meet a need or give them an opportunity to empower themselves, I hope you’ll do it.”

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