Shannon Christensen is the founder of Mamas for Mamas—a non-profit based out of Kelowna, BC that has grown across Canada. We spoke with Shannon about how she started this organization, the vital work Mamas for Mamas does, and how her experiences as a young mother inspired her to alter the course of her life to help mothers facing poverty. You’re going to want to get to know her.
What services do you provide at Mamas for Mamas?
Mamas for Mamas is an online community and a sharing economy. When moms can't meet each other’s needs peer to peer, we provide internal poverty relief resources through our social work team. We help moms with whatever they need: rent, groceries, dental care, mental health care, clothes, even gym memberships. There are a lot of people who fall outside of the poverty relief cutoff. So our programs are specifically designed to identify families who would fall through the cracks. We’re creating this real sharing economy among mothers and caregivers, which is what it used to be like hundreds of years ago.
“Mama” can mean mom, dad, caregiver, uncle, and foster parent. Basically, if you're raising a child and you don't have what you need, come to Mamas. It’s just called Mamas for Mamas because it started with me, my garage, my babies, and a bunch of other moms.
Can you talk a little bit about your motivation for starting this organization?
When I had my first baby, I had just lost my dad. It was a really lonely time. I was 22 and my dad died the day after I got married. I had this epic perspective shift. I realized I wanted children. I was going to wait to have babies until I finished my doctorate—I had all these goals—but I realized nothing mattered without connection. And so my husband and I had a baby who was seven weeks early. That was an incredibly lonely and scary time. I had postpartum depression. I was doing my master's in forensic psychology at the time, and I was feeling really shameful that I was experiencing these depressive moments. I had all the things: I had the house, the safety, the kind, respectful husband, the food on the table, everything. But I didn't have a connection with other mothers, and I was devastated for a long time. I found the community around motherhood to be more cutthroat than trying to get into your master's program. When my second baby was born, I realized this lack of community wasn't going to get any better unless I did something about it myself.
I desperately needed a place where people would be kind so I started a Facebook group in 2014, and I decided I was going to give away every single thing I owned that other moms might be able to use.
Were there any important moments that made you feel like you were on the right track in those early days?
I saw a really horrific post blow up on an online shop and swap page. This young mom, who was like 19, was asking for food and the people on this page absolutely destroyed her. There were like 300 comments, and they were all like “If you can't provide for your children, you shouldn't have them.” So I messaged her and said, “Hey, take that post down. I'll bring you groceries. What do you need?” And she said, “Honestly, I just want spaghetti.” I’ll always remember that because my favorite meal is spaghetti.
So I went and bought her a bunch of groceries and brought them to her house and my son was in the wagon, my other son was strapped to my chest, and she opened the door and the look on her face is something I’ll never forget. She truly didn't think I was going to show up. Well, then she started to cry, and then my baby started to cry, and then my toddler started to cry, and then I started to cry. She hugged me while my baby was still in between us. I’ll never forget that. I don't think she realized that I needed that expression of kindness in that moment as much as she did. I thought, “Oh, my God, I think I found it. I think I found a way to unbreak my heart from my dad dying.” I started to feel joy again, and I thought “If this works for me, maybe this will work for other moms.”
What do mothers facing poverty need most?
Mothers who are experiencing poverty need somebody to listen to them, and to help them navigate the support that’s available out there. They need a caseworker that will help them identify their needs, and the highest need is housing. It’s $2600 a month to rent a 2 bedroom in Kelowna. It's impossible to live here if you aren't wealthy. But at the same time, people live here because their families are here and their connections are here. They can't just leave. Beyond that, I'd say day-to-day material items fill such a massive gap.
And food of course. We realized 90% of families are eating out of cans when they're going to government assistance programs. So we decided to build a farm. We got the land donated, we got the irrigation donated, we got the seedlings donated from West Coast Seeds, we pay the lease on our farmland by selling half the eggs our chickens produce, and then we got every single elementary school in town to plant and grow seedlings so they can understand where their food is coming from. We produce 80,000 pounds of fresh organic food every year for families in need. And, because of amazing volunteers like these kids and Penny, who runs the farm, it costs next to nothing.
Have your experiences running this nonprofit shifted your outlook on motherhood in any way?
Definitely. Through Mamas for Mamas, I think we’ve started to shift mothers away from competition and towards kindness. We like to say, “kindness is our currency.” It's just about working hard and only worrying about who gets the help instead of who gets the credit. I built Mamas for Mamas because I didn't feel like I had a sense of belonging; I figured there might be 10 or 15 other moms out there who felt this way. It turns out, every single mom feels like she doesn’t belong in one way or another.
What is something about motherhood that continues to surprise you?
The strength of mothers. The strongest people I’ve ever met in life are mothers. You see that strength in the way they show up for each other, and show up for their kids in times of great hardship. There's an iron will inside of each mother. Sometimes you just need to be reminded it’s there.
Why do you believe partnerships between nonprofits and brands like H&B are important?
The sharing economy we engage in with moms on Facebook groups, or other social media platforms, isn’t that different from the sharing economy we engage in with our business partners in the community.
We have the ability to improve and increase the quality of life for moms that are struggling financially by working with these organizations and companies that have the financial ability to give back in some way. Their reason for wanting to give back is intricately tied to our reasons for starting Mamas for Mamas. When a company decides to make a tangible difference, we get to be the conduit for their energy, kindness, and compassion.
Can you talk about the evolution of your personal style as you became a mom?
It's hilarious because there was none. I always joke that my style is whatever's clean. I've got two little boys, 8 and 11. Style has only recently become something I put time and energy into. I wore the same pair of earrings for, like, 15 years. I'm actually wearing them right now because I just took off my Sparkle Balls last night. These are my wedding earrings that I got five years ago. I just like to express my personality with my style. I'm a sassy girl, you know, I'm a little bit fiery, and a bit bold, I want my style to represent and reflect that.
I just got a beautiful necklace with my name on it from H&B, and I love that because people are always checking it out and reading it. I'm all about customizing. You have to customize every case that comes in for every mama. You need to customize every grant proposal. So customizing my style, my jewelry, and my hair, it just makes sense.
Are there any pieces of jewelry that help you feel empowered and ready to tackle everything your busy work and home life might present?
Yes. Well, I love bangles. Like I'm a big bangle girl; I do a lot of public speaking and, if I'm nervous, I like that I can jingle them a bit. I also really like a nice long necklace. I've got one that says Mama and I wear that whenever I’m really tapping into my mama vibes. If I'm nervous about something I put on my power stuff like my diamond earrings. They’re a classic.
Is there a woman in your life who inspired you to dedicate yourself to this advocacy work?
My Nana was the most special person. She passed away in January of 2020, but she's still very present in my life. I had a long struggle with depression as a teenager. She's the reason that I am who I am today. She's the reason that I'm still alive. It’s powerful to know that one person can make that kind of a difference in your life.
My Nana was instrumental in building the Motherless Babies Home in Lagos, Nigeria, and I grew up always wanting to be like her. I just kept thinking to myself, if I could be half of Nana, I'll be a full me. And she always told me, “Don't cut yourself down like that. You're everything you need to be.” This woman was incredibly resilient. She grew up in a residential school, and had to run away from it. My goal in the next five years is to launch a second stage homelessness support program, and it's going to be called Nana's House because that's where you go when you can't go home.
Jewelry seems like an endless source of fascination for kids. They’re often grabbing at earrings or necklaces. Do you have an early jewelry memory from when you were a kid?
My Nana had this cross necklace that she wore every day of her life. I remember playing with the cross at a very early age, almost unconsciously, it was like sucking my thumb, but playing with the cross. One time she lost it and ripped up the entire house looking for it. It ended up being in the lint trap of the dryer. After that, she never took it off again until she gave it to me on my wedding day. Years later, my babies played with it just like I played with it.
Writing: Carter Selinger