NORTH ADAMS – When Melody Fisher had her first child 11 years ago, she needed help breastfeeding.
“I couldn’t figure out what he was doing wrong,” she said. “I was so in pain and uncomfortable. I was really at my wit’s end.”
Fisher had just moved from the Boston area to North Adams and didn’t know anyone, but she heard about Berkshire Nursing Families, a nonprofit that helps with breastfeeding, and called their support line.
Rosalie Girard, the group’s executive director and lactation consultant, spoke with her. It was a Sunday evening and within the hour Girard was at Fisher’s house and identified the problem. “You’re doing a great job. What an amazing mom you are,” recalls Girard reassuring her as she cried. “This is what I needed,” said Fisher. “I was so afraid of making a mistake.”
Fisher, who later joined the group’s board, is one of more than 10,000 people Berkshire Nursing Families has helped since Girard founded the group in 1998. In 2021 alone, the group has worked with 743 families . The group has a feeding and parenting helpline, offers breastfeeding counseling, does home visits and runs parenting groups. The services are free.
Now, after more than 20 years at the helm, Girard will retire at the end of the year.
“I just wanted the women and their families to be supported through this very serious experience in their lives, regardless of the outcome,” Girard said, reflecting on why she declared the nonprofit. “They deserve to be supported in this process. I think that’s what kept me going.”
And she loves working with families and children. “People are at their best when they have a baby. All of their best qualities come through. I always feel like it’s such a gift to be able to be a part of it,” she said. “There’s so much energy and beauty there.”
While some call her a baby whisperer, working with children and families was not her original career plan. Girard majored in psychology and planned to become a psychologist. Then she had her first child. “She changed my world,” said Girard, sitting in her office at Berkshire Medical Center’s North Adams campus.
“I wasn’t particularly good with children,” she said. “I studied.”
Girard became a lactation consultant and ran a playgroup for Berkshire Nursing Mothers, a support group that started in the 1970s. In 1993, Girard became a certified lactation consultant and began working in private practice with an escalator. “It didn’t work: the money was just a barrier,” she said. More than half of the families referred to her have not had access to services, she said.
“This is an important moment,” he said. “If you want babies and children to thrive, you need to start when they’re born and not wait until they’re in kindergarten to start putting all these services in place.”
So, in 1998, she officially started Berkshire Nursing Families and, two years later, filed for a nonprofit. Although Girard started the organization, she’s had a lot of help over the past two decades, she said. “I have an army behind me — an army of people over the years saying, I can do this. I can help you with this.”
The group served the north Berkshires until 2012 when they expanded into central and south county. Now, the nonprofit is a team of eight. Funding comes from grants and donations. An annual fundraiser is an important source of funding. The last was held in 2020, just before the pandemic hit, and the group plans to hold their first in years this March.
The support line, the one used by Fisher, is a key service offered by the group. Some people need one visit, some need 10, Girard said, and once they’re stabilized, the group follows up by phone. Girard has a 24-hour support line and ran it overnight for 24 years, except for a two-week period where she went to Hawaii and handed the chores off to someone else.
He feels it’s important to have a resource to help people when they need it. Breastfeeding issues are often crises, she said. “You’re feeding eight to 10 times a day,” she said. “If there’s a problem, it escalates.”
Parents appreciate it. “I think BNF fills a gap in our healthcare system,” Fisher said. “That flexible internal support just doesn’t exist, and it certainly isn’t free.”
Michelle Sansky found the support line helpful. “Even as a family doctor I haven’t received training in breastfeeding,” she said. After having a baby, she met a lactation consultant at the hospital. “But you come home and things change,” she said. many times the women will go home and problems will develop even though things were fine at the hospital.” BNF came to her home several times to help her about a year ago, and has been checking up with calls and texts. breast if it wasn’t for them,” said Sansky, from Cheshire, who is now a board member.
The nonprofit also has several family support groups in different parts of the county. Groups often help parents build relationships. “People always tell me, ‘I still date people I met in your playgroup,’ because their kids are the same age,” Girard said. “They develop these really great relationships because they’ve been through this really intense experience together. And they get that, they get each other.”
One recent morning at an infant and toddler support group at Haskins School in North Adams, Kayla Smith put her little boy, Harper, on a scale for a weight check.
Like Sansky and Fisher, Smith found herself stressed and in need of breastfeeding help when she had her first child, Avery, several years ago. Her pediatrician had given her a brochure for Berkshire Nursing Families, and when she got into trouble she called and her Girard was at her house that evening. Soon after, she started attending the weekly playgroup. At times she can be isolating being at home with a newborn. “Being in a room with other moms who are going through the same thing is really cool,” Smith said.
Nearby, Sarah Pikula sat while her ten-month-old son played a toy piano. In the group she finds non-judgmental support. When she needs to feed her baby, she can do it right there instead of rushing to her car to find a safe place. Pikula also received help from Girard while breastfeeding her first child. “She once spent an hour on the phone with me trying to sort things out,” she said.
“It’s a welcoming group,” said Pikula. “I have never felt alone in my breastfeeding journey.”