'New Mom Project' offers free baby gear, friendship

Sometimes life's toughest moments can lead to unexpected new beginnings.

That's what happened for Toronto mom and nurse Gwen Broda. She'd just started her third maternity leave when she found out she didn't have enough hours to qualify for Employment Insurance parental benefits.

"I was really angry. I thought, 'I've fallen through a gap in the system here,'" she told CBC Toronto. "It's not fair."

She and her partner managed to get through, but Broda says the experience opened her eyes to the struggles many less-fortunate moms face. So, she says, she turned her anger into action.

Almost six years later, she's helped more than 1,000 moms struggling to provide the basic necessities for their kids.

She started the New Mom Project, a registered charity, out of her North York living room in 2014. 

Calling on friends and neighbours for donations of gently-used baby clothes and supplies, she delivered them to moms in need out of her SUV for the first few years.

Grant Linton/CBC

Now she's got an 800-square foot donation centre in the city's east end near O'Connor Drive and St Clair Avenue East and a proper delivery truck.

"You never expect where things are going to take you," said Broda, who runs the project while still working part-time as a visiting nurse.

"It's the demand and non-existent other support for parents. There's not many ways to get things for your babies that are free."

Submitted by: Gwen Broda

She says many of the clients are newcomers to Canada. The centre operates on an application basis that works with community partners, including hospitals, midwife clinics, shelters, community health centres, and Toronto Public Health programs.

Once approved, a mom can visit the centre up to five times. There is no catchment area and no age restrictions.

"It's our goal to make sure everybody who needs it can have it," she said.

Moms pick out the items they want and often, Broda says, they end up forging new friendships.

Many return as volunteers, she says.

Grant Linton/ CBC

'It's like a big family'

When Chanelle Blair first heard about the New Mom Project, she wasn't so sure it was for her, but her doctor encouraged her to give it a try.

She was 20 with two small children and a third on the way. Her eldest, who was four years old at the time, needed a new car seat.

Broda showed up on her doorstep with just that and soon the two became fast friends. Now Blair volunteers her time at the centre and mentors other mothers. 

"It's like a big family," said Blair, now 25, and a mother of four. "Sometimes you feel alone and it's not good to feel alone when you have a child."

With Broda's help, she's training to become a personal support worker, and she's hoping to one day open a sister organization to the New Mom Project. 

"If I can start something that could help [young moms] or feel like they have that someone of support, like what Gwen kind of gave for me. She's more like a mother figure."

Grant Linton/ CBC

Room to grow

With a wait list and moms travelling from Brampton and Mississauga to get to the donation centre, Broda hopes to expand to multiple locations.

It's something that's desperately needed, according to registered midwife Care Sinclair. 

She says becoming a parent can be an overwhelming experience, which is only heightened for families struggling to get access to resources.

"It can impact our mental health and impact our ability to care for ourselves and our babies," said Sinclair, who opens up her front porch in the west end as a second donation drop-off location.

"It's so important we have services like the New Mom Project, where we can help families get the resources, take that off their list, so we can help them spend time with their infants and make the most of the moments they've got — without them having to be panicked or overwhelmed by lack of diapers or lack of warm clothes."

Grant Linton/CBC