Informed by her own mother's experience in foster care, Los Angeles mom Jules Leyser wanted to make a difference for teen moms in similar circumstances.
So in 2014, Leyser joined fellow moms Yasmine Delawari Johnson and Danika Charity to found the Alliance of Moms, an auxiliary group that supports the Alliance of Children's Rights, an organization that protects the rights of kids in need.
Their focus: pregnant teens in foster care.
The Alliance of Moms, which has grown its network of local moms over the last two years, aims to break the cycle of babies born to teen girls in the foster-care system. The numbers are staggering. More than 70 percent of girls in foster care are pregnant before the age of 21, and the Alliance wants to help these young women provide the best for their babies.
With events such as its twice-yearly Raising Baby program, which happens on September 24 and focuses on infant care and early brain development, these LA moms are making an enormous impact.
We spoke to Leyser, who is mom to a 3-year-old son, about her involvement and how her mother's experience informed her drive to help others.
What inspired you to found the Alliance of Moms?
All moms know how challenging parenting can be even if you are in the privileged position of having a wealth of resources at your disposal. So when the Alliance for Children’s Rights asked whether we could help raise funds and support for their pregnant and parenting teen clients in foster care, we immediately said yes. After hosting a couple of fundraisers at Yasmine’s house, our mom friends wanted to get more involved with helping this vulnerable population. We knew that moms have very open hearts but very little time. We, therefore, designed the Alliance of Moms so that our members could feel very involved without having to spend much time away from their own families.
You're particularly connected to the foster-care system, with your mother having experienced it firsthand. How did you want to improve it?
My mum spent almost her entire childhood in foster care in England. She got pregnant with my brother at 17 and me at 19. Like most kids in foster care, my mum experienced abuse and subsequent trauma. Now in her 60s, the trauma of those early years is still apparent, and she can be very wary of trusting people. One of the things I wanted to improve was people’s overall perception of parenting teens in foster care. I think a lot of people judge these young parents as a burden on society without thinking about them as people with complex histories who, like all parents, simply want to provide their kids with the best of everything.
These young moms can often be quite awkward socially — my mum still is — because they haven’t had positive life guidance from adult role models they can depend upon. It's easy to see them as rude when actually they are simply protecting themselves from more potential hurt. So for me, one of the greatest parts of our mission is to encourage people to reframe how they think about pregnant and parenting teens and transform judgment into support.
I think a lot of people judge these young parents as a burden on society without thinking about them as people with complex histories.
Tell us about an experience with one of the pregnant or young foster care mothers that has stuck with you.
We were hosting a Raising Foodies class one night, and I was sitting next to a very shy girl at dinner. Lots of kids in foster care have very high protective walls given how frequently they’ve been let down, and so they can be quite socially awkward. As is the case for a lot of our girls, the sit-down dinner after the cooking class was this girl's first experience of a dinner party. I talked to this girl all night and heard her heartbreaking story of having her daughter taken away at birth and how she struggled with postpartum depression due to a range of mental-health issues she faced. Slowly, she opened up and shared that she was going to therapy and had done all the things required for her to get her daughter back. I didn’t do much other than listen and empathize and tell her how we all need and deserve support.
We hosted a fun event after that for both members and teen moms and their kids. The girl from Raising Foodies had her daughter with her that day and approached me as if we’d known each other for years. She wanted her daughter to meet my son, and the social confidence she displayed was extraordinary. I introduced her to someone else and saw her immediately retreat behind her wall but realized that aside from the parenting support this young woman needs, she also just needs a community to listen to her and believe in her.
What has surprised you the most about creating this community of volunteer moms?
What has surprised me most about this community of volunteer moms is how fast we’ve grown. Five of us founded AOM at the very end of 2014, and now we have 400 enthusiastic members. The stories of our young moms in foster care has really touched the LA mom community in a way I couldn’t have predicted. On Mother’s Day this year, I received an outpouring of love not only from our teen moms but also from our member moms who expressed being very grateful to have AOM in their lives. I was actually really taken aback by this because I’m not sure I had realized until then that giving people the opportunity to give back is actually one of the greatest gifts you can offer.
What's your advice for moms who also want to found a charitable or community-based organization that helps people in need?
My advice for moms who want to start a new community-based organization is to be prepared for how much people want to be involved in their community once you open the door for them. We didn’t anticipate how quickly AOM would grow. People offer us ways to help our girls every single day. It's incredible. But as volunteers you have to know what your organization’s goal is, otherwise you can lose focus. Everything we do at AOM has an educational element, and so that gives us a great barometer for the offers we can take and those that unfortunately don’t serve our mission.
I have a background in advertising, and I imposed some of that business and marketing strategy onto AOM within our first six months. I think that has helped us be clearer about who we are and what we do. So I would say always striving for clarity of purpose and simplicity of message would be my biggest piece of advice.
Where do you hope AOM is in five or 10 years?
I hope there is an Alliance of Moms in every major city in the US and beyond. If we can figure it out here in LA, where we have more kids in foster care than anywhere else in the US, then I think we can provide a scaleable model for others to adopt. And I hope that Yasmine, Danika and I are still standing!