By Lela Nargi
Amy Cahill remembers the afternoon last December when she was shopping with sons Max, age four, and Logan, age 2, at the Target near their Lincoln Park high rise. Spotting two sparkly plastic princess crowns, Max turned to his mother and insisted, “We’ve gotta get those!” They were a perfect match for the princess slippers that had been donated in a toy drive to Cahill’s non-profit organization, More Than Milk—a fact that struck hockey-loving Max with a certain amount of urgency. Says Cahill, “It was one of those times when you begin to see your kids are getting it—that little twinkle of understanding about being kind and helping others.”
Cahill conceived of More Than Milk, which teams up moms and their tots with kid-friendly volunteering opportunities around Chicago, almost four years ago, during a 2:00 am breastfeeding. It’s a grown-up witching hour of sorts, when many new moms feel so acutely alone and disconnected from their pre-mom lives. Rather than give in to those feelings, Cahill used them as fuel for an organization that would give her precisely the opposite—community and connection—with other new moms looking to do something more than just mom, looking for a way to give more than just the milk they were producing for their newborns. She typed up notes and designed the website for More Than Milk right on her iPhone, over the course of several more 2:00 am feedings. “It was kind of crazy,” she admits. “But I wanted an opportunity for continued personal growth, and also felt very motivated to make the world a better place for my son.”
Growing up in suburban Michigan, Cahill had a powerful do-gooder role model in her mom, a school counselor. “She connected with the wild kids and the troublemakers, and impacted their lives with kindness and firm expectations,” says Cahill. “I wanted to emulate her commitment to others.” She began to do just that in 10th grade, when a new homeless shelter opened in her town. She raised the money to furnish one of the rooms and organized weekly events where local high schoolers would come in to play with the shelter kids.
Cahill graduated from the University of Michigan in 2003 and moved to Lincoln Park, where she’s lived ever since. Initially, she worked at a sales and marketing consulting firm, and volunteered on weekends at a public school in Englewood, reading and making art with the students as part of an enrichment program. “I came home from those Saturdays excited and energized,” she remembers. She got her teaching certification through Northwestern University and began teaching 6th grade, then high school math, in the Chicago public school system. The experience was rewarding but grueling and made her realize, “We really need to come together as a community to help each child thrive,” she says. “Teachers can’t do it all; parents can’t do it all.”
Around this time, she met her financier husband-to-be, Gabe, at Midway airport. “We were in line at Potbelly’s to get sandwiches and he thought, ‘If she walks over to my terminal, I’ll talk to her.’” They discovered they were not only on the same flight—both back home to Michigan—but that they lived on the same street in Chicago. They were married in 2008, and Max came along two years later. Shortly after his birth, Cahill made the decision not to go back to teaching. “I knew I couldn’t balance those 60 kids, plus my one,” she says. But it didn’t take long in her new role as a stay-at-home mom for her to realize that her life was out of balance, in a different way. Being active in the community had been a huge guiding force in her life, and now she felt a strong need to get back to it. She hoped she could convince other moms to join her.
The More Than Milk soft launch happened on a muggy Thursday in August of 2011. Thirty-three moms and their babies turned out at the Lincoln Park Bubbles Academy playspace for a Mommy & Me Health Fest, in support of the breast and ovarian health organization, Bright Pink. They raised $500. More crucially, they started spreading the word about More Than Milk to the local mom community. “So many amazing, smart women are choosing to stay home and they started coming to us saying, ‘I love being home but I miss doing stuff that involves my previous career.’” The moms who turn out now—staffing two or three events a month, sometimes in numbers in the hundreds—are “completely dedicated,” says Cahill.
To date, More Than Milk has hosted over more than 100 events, teaming up with women’s and domestic violence shelters, NICUs, and senior centers—places where mothers in particular feel a sense of purpose and connection. Cahill and her six-mom board of directors work with a handful of carefully-selected “Featured Organizations” (FOs) to come up with “fun, easy ways for moms and kids to get involved.” Sometimes the kids are actively engaged in singing, or handing out holiday cards to septuagenarians; sometimes they’re just “cooing in their strollers,” says Cahill. Whichever way, “They’re experiencing philanthropy with you first hand. My thinking is, if you have them volunteering with you before they know what it is, it becomes part of their life.” Volunteers sign up on a per-project basis, which keeps the organization flexible and doesn’t scare off moms who are afraid to promise more than they can deliver. Plenty of dads help, too, especially with weekend projects and anything that requires a lot of heavy lifting.
Participation has been growing in leaps and bounds. The 2013 toy drive for a pregnant teen shelter yielded about 300 gifts, which More Than Milk Volunteers also wrapped and delivered. In 2014, “I got to 1,062 toys and I couldn’t count anymore, because I had to get busy and wrap,” Cahill says. “We more than tripled contributions in one year.”With the success come challenges. Toddler Logan looks at the gifts for the More Than Milk drive and “thinks it’s all for him,” laughs Cahill. Not to mention, “Our greatest asset—namely, our kids—makes everything we do unpredictable. So it can be hard to find projects that are truly beneficial to our FOs, and that can take place in a kid-friendly environment and window of time.”
But both on a community level and within the much smaller nest of her family, Cahill says the challenges are well worth the effort—even if the results in her boys are not immediately or consistently apparent. “As moms, we worry so much: Are we doing the right things?” says Cahill. “When you volunteer, you realize it’s simple: You give them love and you teach them kindness. I want my kids to take time to understand how fortunate they are. I want them to think of other people.”
Photographs by Thomas Kubik, TK Photography