Nurturing Naturally — Alice Light & Bobbi Williams

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Alice Light and Bobbi Williams greeted me warmly on a sunny afternoon in late September inside the Natural Resources shop front, a 30-plus year pregnancy, childbirth and early parenting resource center and retail store turned nonprofit. They had recently relocated to this new location from a few blocks away on Valencia Street in the Mission District of San Francisco, Calif.

Staff members manned the front desk, shielded by a clear plastic sneeze guard, while shoppers browsed every pregnancy, birth and baby item imaginable from specialty bras to breast pumps, and baby clothing. Coincidentally, I was in town for a few days to meet my newborn nephew. I managed to book an appointment to meet with both directors during the trip. Throughout this issue, several women have cited motherhood as a catalyst for starting their own businesses. Naturally, a nonprofit supporting new mothers (and others close to a new birth situation) was a topic our magazine wanted to cover. Motherhood is a business in its own right but running a business in addition to a household is something else. Women, especially new mothers, often have enough on their plates. Having a communal space to prepare for and recover from birthing seemed like a much-needed resource to include for this issue.

To my surprise, the store extended deep. I was led to an enormous space at the back of the store that donned skylights typical of San Francisco’s buildings. Normally, the space is used for prenatal and new parent classes (like Childbirth Prep, Newborn Care, CPR), and support groups for families. Along the edges of the room were birthing tubs, floor mats, cushions and exercise balls. For our meeting, we sat in chairs arranged in a circle around a whiteboard. Our conversation focused on the challenges and rewards of running a physical space amid the nearly two-year pandemic.

Alice, executive director, joined The Natural Resources All Families Foundation in 2019 after a six-year tenure at TODCO Group, a nonprofit housing developer of affordable housing in the South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood. She studied architecture at Yale before obtaining a master’s degree in city planning at UC Berkeley. It was in becoming a parent herself that Alice discovered the profound need for a place like Natural Resources. She gave birth to her three daughters (8, 6 and 2) at home in the Mission where she and her husband have lived for over a decade.

Bobbi, director of operations, owned a pop-up consignment maternity clothing company, Maternity Xchange from 2004 to 2011 (before the term “pop-up” was widely used). She met the former owner of Natural Resources, Cara Vidano, at the first “Baby Fair” that her company produced, a small Maternity Health and Wellness Fair with about 15 vendors. It resulted in a waiting list of people who wanted to take part. This was the genesis for co-founding a new company, Birth & Baby Events, LLC that produced the San Francisco Birth and Baby Fair (SFBBF). At each event the SFBBF brought together almost 1,000 families and over 60 local retailers (vendors), wholesalers, and service providers that served expectant and new parents in the Bay Area. The fairs happened from 2005 to 2019 throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Bobbi joined Natural Resources in 2007.

By 2013, Ginny Colbert Zeppa bought the business and in 2016 reorganized the corporation to become a nonprofit. “I often tell people we were a ‘no-profit’ before we became a nonprofit,” Bobbi explained. One of the reasons it was so difficult to make a profit was the staff’s willingness to educate their customers. “In a lot of cases, that would mean customers coming in saying, ‘Oh, I need this new product … I need this new sling,’ and we’d say, “No, we’re going to teach you how to use what you already have, which wasn’t helping our bottom line (because we were not making that sale) but it was helping us fulfill our mission,” she said. “That was part of the reason why we transitioned into becoming a nonprofit.”

Today, the organization has several revenue streams including sales from merchandise, classes and groups, hospital grade equipment rentals, but also donations. Their target demographic is new parents and parents-to-be. Alice talked about her own experiences with childbirth and why the organization’s mission resonated with her. “I remember very clearly looking at Yelp reviews to figure out where to give birth, and I just felt like that was insane,” she said. “Natural Resources had been here, but I didn’t know about it at that time.” When asked whether she was providing the solution to a problem she didn’t have answers to back then, her response was apropos. “The problem that we’re solving — that people need information and support as they become parents — is a forever problem. I mean, it’s why this place was originally founded, because you need a village. I don’t think that will ever change. We’re here to catch people.”

When I became a mother, it was clear to me that there was this whole world of birth recovery and new parenting that we basically refuse to talk about. We expect parents to carry on, people who gave birth to bounce back as though nothing happened. It’s a huge thing that just happened! I led a group this morning, and one of the new moms shared, “I feel like I have to be an expert in everything. I’m wound so tight and I’m not sleeping.” She was so overwhelmed. In moments like that I feel so connected to why I do this work. It’s so important to have a place where new parents can be in a room together and share their experience, commiserate, share tips and tricks, and find resources. At Natural Resources we believe knowledge is power, and we’re a place where people can either find it or be pointed [in the right direction]. We want you to get information and then make the decisions that feel right for you and your family. It was absolutely in becoming a parent that I realized that this was [what I wanted to do].

The organization moved to its current location in 2019, just before the pandemic hit. Their former location was on the same street, but it was a complete overhaul to move into the new space. Alice, with her background in architecture, helped with the structural details. The city announced a citywide lockdown just after the space was approved by the city and they were beginning to settle in. To combat the slowdown in store and classroom traffic, they were pressed to take out a PPP loan. Alice even considered exiting the short-lived new store. “Hey, do we just throw in the towel and call it a day? You know, give up the space and go fully virtual because there are those in-between connections that you can’t replicate any other way.” However, they bit the bullet and kept the space.

The pandemic gave them the time to make improvements to their website, and through these improvements, the roster of experts at Natural Resource remained active online. Alice listed a few types of facilitators. “We have lactation consultants, who are licensed professionals and for doula training, it’s a midwife, nurse and doula,” she explained. Bobbi chimed in, “Some of our facilitators have been with us longer than I’ve been here. Going back close to two decades, in some cases. A lot of our teachers have been with us for over 10 years”.

“We fully made the call out to the community and got people to help so that is where we benefit from having a longer-term relationship with the community,” Alice recounted. Customers and parents who benefited from the organization’s services in the past contributed to the move by connecting them to contractors and architects. These connections eased the stress of the pandemic and helped the organization stay on their feet. There were touches of care that the directors included in the new space. Bobbi explained their community space ethos. “We configured it to include a little kitchenette area to serve tea and snacks, we have a nursing area where people can sit, meet other parents, feed their baby, use the scale, things like that. So we really are a community space that people will come into and be supported in,” Bobbi explained. “Yes, we needed to know that would all fit, in order to have the classroom space where people can come in and gather,” Alice added.

Natural Resources altered their offerings to serve the community during COVID and rented out baby scales for parents making virtual pediatrician appointments so that parents were able to weigh their babies as if they were at the actual doctor’s office.

In a denser city environment, I wanted to know what the risks were of managing a physical space. “We’re in an active neighborhood, and we moved from a location that was in a little slower part of the street,” Bobbi answered. “So we definitely see more activity in the area than we did previously, which I think also makes us safer in some ways too. If something were to happen, there’d be other people around. We’re a part of the Merchant’s Association.”

Alice agreed. “We really look out for each other on the street. There’s a Facebook group of all the merchants on the street, and people share, if they get broken into, if there  are people shoplifting, we share that information. We’re all in this thing together.” We talked about some of the complicated experiences new mothers face. Alice mentioned the prevalence of postpartum depression, explaining how the symptoms don’t exhibit in the same way for all women and can be hard to detect.

Bobbi shared her personal philosophy around prevention. “That’s our priority, right? Like get everybody in the door and get them empowered to ask the questions and define the information so that they can, as much as possible, take control over what their experience is going to be,” she explained. “With, of course, being flexible because things are going to happen. If we could, we’d let everybody know that you can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to certain things and that they have options. That’s my goal; get them all the information upfront. If something did happen, they would still need to process and deal with that after, but they went into it feeling like, ‘Okay, I had the information, I was able to make a sound judgment, educated decision, on the things that came up rather than feel like I was railroaded and wasn’t sure where my autonomy was in this situation.’”

“At the same time, I think it can be hard to know. Not everyone knows that they need to get the information,” Alice continued. “We have a class, for example, that’s about sharing. If you had a traumatic birth, it’s about sharing that and processing it with a group of other people who’ve given birth. In the support groups, there are people who have had all different kinds of births, and there’s an opportunity to talk about that. Ideally, we’d be able to get people information so they can make their choices. If that doesn’t happen, there is still healing to be done, processing to be done.”

It was heartening to see this facility start to resume some of its former foot traffic. Even so, the directors recognized that they were still under capacity and that their new space was far from realizing its full potential. Bobbi remarked on how acquaintances congratulated her on “making it through COVID” at a market she’d recently attended. “We haven’t made it yet,” she surmised.

Conversations with Jess Lo. Written by Jess Lo. Edited by Samantha Stanich & Eugenia Macias.

Cover Art by Sarah Emory. Brand Design by Meghan Hricak.