Pettaway Pursuit Foundation: Serving the Community in a Time of Crisis

Karen Peterson and Theresa Pettaway
Karen Peterson and Theresa Pettaway visit the milk bank

Just over a year ago, during World Breastfeeding Week 2019, we opened a milk depot at Pettaway Pursuit Foundation (PPF), which has served Philadelphia-area families for over 20 years, with a focus on expectant and at-risk mothers, especially women of color. Like most nonprofits, Pettaway Pursuit Foundation has changed the way it does business during the COVID-19 pandemic, while continuing to honor its mission. Since the milk depot is temporarily on hold, we wanted to find out how the Foundation had pivoted to serve families in new ways during this trying time. We checked in with PPF Executive Director Theresa Pettaway to learn more.

When we spoke with her, the organization had just survived a multi-day power outage in the wake of Tropical Storm Isaias (and if that weren’t enough, non-native lanternflies had infested the area). It was clear throughout our interview that neither natural disaster nor societal upheaval could keep this resilient NICU mom from supporting families in need. “We’ve been having crisis after crisis these past few weeks, but it’s okay,” said Theresa with calm resolve.

Pettaway’s Mission

Pettaway Pursuit Foundation’s mission is to improve pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and NICU experiences along with achieving healthier newborn outcomes and empowering new mothers with resources and education on proper infant care. Having navigated the NICU three times with her own children, Theresa founded the organization in 1999 in order to support other mothers through the trauma of premature labor, birth, and hospitalization. Over time, other mothers joined in her efforts, and the organization grew to provide a vast array of services to families, including perinatal education, doula support, and much more. “We want to make sure we have good care services for women, expectant moms, for their entire pregnancies and postpartum—make sure we have services for emotional and physical support for those moms while they’re pregnant. We also help them and their families with any information they need as they jump into breastfeeding support . . . So we have a lot,” says Theresa.

Virtual Doula Support

One of the biggest changes for Pettaway Pursuit Foundation during the pandemic has been a switch to on line support for doula services and educational classes. Doulas are providing virtual and telephone support before, during, and after birth, and even encouragement via their Facebook Live “Doula Chat.” When hospitals allow more than one support person, the birthing parent and doula decide together how the doula will support the family. Through virtual support, doulas have been able to “build that relationship with the family. We have educated not just the mother but her support person as well,” says Theresa. While PPF always provides specialized training to its doulas, the organization is now working toward becoming a full-fledged doula certification organization. “We want to train you effectively on how to be able to serve all different populations . . .  because we are on the forefront of working with the Medicaid population, so we want to be able to educate all the different doulas, as they are learning to become doulas, on how to do that.”

Parenting Education

PPF also offers a robust array of classes on line nearly every day of the week through its Pal for Parents program—childbirth preparation, breastfeeding, NICU support, yoga, nutrition, newborn care, life skills, Mommy to Mommy, and Dad’s Corner. With parents working at home, they have added story time and group sessions for the whole family. “Whoever logs on, we provide Zoom support classes . . . We have to make sure we stay relevant,” says Theresa. Offering classes on line has broadened participation, enabling people from outside of the local area to take part.

A Boutique and a Diaper Bank

When parents attend classes, they earn points to spend at the PPF Treasure Chest, a lovely boutique in the Foundation’s back yard that is stocked with maternity, newborn care, and specialty items to help parents get off to a good start with their babies. During the pandemic, the boutique has continued to be open during set hours for socially distanced, masked shopping. “They love shopping in our boutique . . . It’s something that makes them feel appreciated, that they are more than just another number,” says Theresa. Community members interested donating new items for the boutique can check the wish list on the organization’s website or make a financial donation.

Last fall, Theresa and her colleague, Karen Peterson, visited Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast on a day when we hosted a volunteer group from Sarah Wells Pump Bags, and Sarah made a generous donation of beautiful bags that PPF clients have enjoyed receiving in exchange for their class points. When COVID-19 created shortages of personal protective equipment, Sarah once again reached out with generous donations of masks and gloves for both PPF and the milk bank through her initiative Momlife Response.

In addition to the boutique, PPF has hosted diaper drives and even a drive-by baby shower for teen moms. There is no end to the creative ways PPF finds to meet the needs of families.

Feeding School-Age Children

During the pandemic, Pettaway Pursuit Foundation has played a crucial role in feeding children. The organization became a distribution location for Nutritional Development Services (NDS) of Philadelphia. Every Monday and Wednesday from May through August, PPF staff and volunteers, masked and socially distanced, unloaded food from NDS trucks and distributed it to 175-200 families per day, with each school-age child receiving three breakfasts, three lunches, and six servings of milk. Be sure to check out the inspiring video on the PPF Facebook page.

Volunteers Working Together in a Time of Crisis

Theresa spoke movingly of the community spirit of these dedicated volunteers during a trying time:

Even with the state of the world today and with Black Lives Matter and all the different things that just happened, I was actually grateful, with volunteers from all different backgrounds, that while the looting was going on, we were in harmony giving out food, and no one missed a beat . . . We didn’t know what was about to happen. There was so much looting going on . . . Should we open? . . . Are they going to loot us? We thought about this.  I was actually grateful that we just flowed, we had our flow like nothing happened . . . We had our love, support, and everyone came out, and the food was given out with love, and they were saying thank you . . . We did not shut our doors . . . It was amazing. They come, and I tell you, the love and the support we’ve built, it makes you feel good. You have to sit back and embrace it while it’s happening, because this is a trying time and it is hard . . . I’m really humbled and blessed.”

Revive, Restore, Reclaim

When we spoke with Theresa, it was just prior to Black Breastfeeding Week, whose 2020 theme was “Revive. Restore. Reclaim.” We asked her what significance those words had to her right now.

Revive: First and foremost, the family needs to be revived, the family as a whole. We all have to learn a new way . . . how you work, how you take care of family while you’re at home working now . . . How do you manage all that? We all have to learn a new way of doing everything.”

Restore: We definitely have to restore these families—the impact of all that we all have been through, COVID . . . We are all going to need some kind of restoration. Just helping one another—when I am listening to someone going through something, where do you put all that? Where do you actually put all that? So we are definitely going to have to restore our families—ourselves first, because we are doing so much . . . We have to take time out to see what’s going on with one another . . . We have so much coming at us, we have to survive, but we still need to be able to restore ourselves.”

Reclaim: We have to reclaim what we think, how this country should be, because right now we’re in a mess, and this is not the America that I know that we need. I am grateful we are all taking time out to hear one another, but we have to reclaim our humanity as a whole—and that’s what it is. Everybody should treat each other the way they want to be treated. We have to reclaim that and own that and help, because it has to trickle down, so when we get together we have to teach our children that, teach our loved ones that, everyone around us—reclaim our humanity. That’s what we need.”

Getting Out There and Making It Work

In closing, we asked this inspiring leader for her parting thoughts:

The last few weeks have been really interesting, to say the least, but we are here, and we’re making it work, with everything thrown at us . . . We’re still making sure we do what we do. We’re taking a moment to revive ourself, restore ourself, and get back out there and do the best we can.”

Pennsylvania milk depot opens
Grand opening of milk depot at Pettaway Pursuit Foundation in 2019