Bellyful founder, Jacqui Ritchie well remembers feelings of intense tiredness, isolation and work pressures when, as a first time mum, she battled with a ‘sleepless’ baby whose extreme periods of wakefulness lasted about 18 months.
She also recalls how wonderful it was when a friend or family member dropped off a prepared evening meal, saving her a sometimes stressful chore at what is always a busy time of the night for most families with young children.
However, it wasn’t until her second son – ‘an easy baby’ – was an infant and she was witnessing a neighbour’s similar feelings of anxiety while home alone with a newborn and little support, that Jacqui had a very clear vision of women coming together to cook meals and distribute them to mums who had new babies and lacked assistance.
“Wow, I thought, wouldn’t it be great if someone did that! What’s more, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I was supposed to be that person and my faith told me that I would not be alone in this. If this was something that was ‘supposed’ to happen, all I had to do was make myself available, be prepared to do the work and the rest would fall into place. Was I afraid? Absolutely!
“I knew from experience that being at home with a baby could be pretty lonely. I had both little practical support and also some great support. The two contrasts showed me how important support was and what a difference it can make to a mum, and to the whole family.”
After she and friend, Toni Prowse (whom she had met at ante natal classes) talked, the two women agreed it was possible to start catering to what was an obvious community need. With two others they officially launched Bellyful in Auckland in 2009; now 10 years later the organisation has burgeoned to 22 branches across the country.
Today, a huge movement of volunteers cook and deliver meals to families with newborn babies or young children who are struggling with illness and where there is little or no family or social support. They prepare the meals in a monthly ‘Cookathon’, freeze them and then deliver them over the next few weeks to families who are referred by health professionals, family and friends. The result has been plenty of gratitude and also some firm friendships between volunteers and with new mums.
“From the outset interest and support came thick and fast!” Jacqui says. “Everyone loved the idea of Bellyful. It was an easy sell. I just talked to people. Talked, and talked, and talked – it was about sharing my passion.
“I couldn’t have done it without my husband, Robbie, who has always been amazingly patient with a generous heart; my kids too. They have always supported my work with Bellyful and I am so grateful for their championing of me in the early years when it was hard work.”
Jacqui says it was from those early and enthusiastic efforts a philosophy of giving and caring was developed – “Bellyful volunteers understand that it is okay to ask for and accept help; that it is important to acknowledge parenting a newborn can be really hard, and that well supported families are less likely to struggle during times of stress.”
Now living in Wellington, where she works as a fundraising manager for a not-for-profit social services agency, Jacqui’s involvement with Bellyful has reduced.
“Although I gained so much satisfaction from Bellyful, a few years back I realised I had taken it as far I could and some fresh eyes and impetus was needed. It was time for me to step back.
“However, I still get immense personal satisfaction seeing the way Bellyful continues to grow and how well it is managed by both a small paid team and a plethora of wonderful volunteers without whom it wouldn’t exist and so many people would be without much needed support.
“I love nothing more than hearing the stories of parents who have received Bellyful meals, and how much that has meant to them. I love it. I also enjoy meeting the volunteers and hearing how the work has impacted on their lives and why they are so passionate about it. It fills my tank!
With the business’ 10th anniversary celebrations completed Jacqui can reflect on what an exciting milestone it was.
“I’m pretty confident that Bellyful will always maintain what it does – cooking and delivering simple meals to Kiwi families at a time when they need it most,” she adds.
“It was so rewarding to see that the work it is carrying on in such good spirit. I loved seeing people I hadn’t seen in many years and hearing fresh stories. All up, I think the organisation is in a fabulous position, and is ready for a big future. I wish it every success.”
By Helen Perry