Founder of Miry's List.
Miry Whitehill is a mother of two young children, who started the amazing organization Miry’s List from her kitchen table less than two years ago as a way to help local refugee families who recently arrived to the US after fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries. Miry’s List provides a mechanism for people to directly help new arrival refugee families with the things that they need to get started in their new lives – from diapers to beds to cleaning supplies and toiletries. The organization currently serves over 280 refugee families, and has a team of 28 staffers and over 100 volunteer listmakers. Miry inspires us daily, so we sat down and asked her more about how she became a Momtivist.
For more information or to make a donation to one of the incredible Miry’s List families, please visit www.miryslist.org
How did Miry’s List begin, and how did your experience as a mother influence your work?
Before I met the first family in 2016 I was a stay at home mom with 5.5 month old and 3 year old. My son wasn’t sleeping – and neither was I – and the chronic exhaustion was catching up to me. I wasn’t looking for a job or even more volunteer work – I was maxed out emotionally, physically, etc. But then my friend Suzanne, another mom, called and said she’d met a family who recently arrived from Syria who had a baby near my younger son’s age, and they needed a jumper. The baby had been in the mom’s arms for 7 months straight. I was on the phone and there was my son in a swing, while I was learning about a mom like me who had nowhere to put her baby down, and I thought I don’t have a jumper (since I still needed mine), but I can ask the ladies in my local mom facebook group. Ten minutes after I asked, one of my neighbors – who I’d never met – said she had one. So I picked it up and brought it to the family. I stayed to watch the baby play on the jumper for the first time, and it was just like any other child experiencing something new. Before then I’d only seen the same images of Syrian refugees that we’ve all seen – war, suffering, toddlers washing up on the shore. But this was a baby like any other baby. And what has seemed like an unsolvable crisis was now broken down into one tiny, solvable problem – one mom with one baby, needing a place to put him down.
After that started to look around the apartment, and noticed how little was there for a family of five. I went to the bathroom and it was empty – no cleaning supplies, towels, nothing. You can tell where a family is at by what’s in their bathroom. I thought about my own bathroom, covered in towels and toys, and it was such a stark difference. I just went into action mode. I asked the family what they needed to feel normal, and they said “Milk.” I knew they needed more, and eventually got them to go room by room, drawer by drawer with me, and let me know what they really needed. We made a list, and it was all stuff I knew I could get. What was unsolvable to them at that point – just getting basics – was something I could solve. As a parent, there are so many problems that aren’t open and shut, that are so complicated, but this was something solvable. That’s where my original energy came from, and it became like medicine to me. There was so much in my life as a mom I couldn’t control, but here was something I could control. I could get them what they needed.
So many moms feel overwhelmed, so they feel they can’t take on anything else beyond taking care of their kids. But you took on more and it made you feel better?
I didn’t know I needed medicine at the time, but it really was like my medicine. I look back on when the boys were babies and I remember crying and being so stressed out – it wasn’t a healthy time for me. But this opportunity came – I met this family – and I wasn’t looking at myself anymore. I was looking at this mom. I thought “I can’t solve any of my problems, but maybe I can help with hers.” So I went home and I posted the list, and I realized how many people I knew had the same desire of wanting to help refugees, but having no idea how. So that was the next revelation – the demand on both sides. Our customers aren’t just the new arrivals, they’re also the donors, they want an opportunity to help.
As I mom, I always felt so invisible. So much of what we do, only our kids see. But I started getting these amazing messages of gratitude – from families and from donors too. That was like the other part of my medicine. I didn’t feel invisible, or pointless anymore. I got to a point where I had over a hundred text messages every day. It was overwhelming, but a totally different kind of overwhelming. My life completely changed.
So how do you balance all these people who need you with being a mom to your kids who need you too?
Lots of what I was doing was during naptime and after the boys went to sleep. But there was a lot I could do with my kids – visit families, organize donations. My kids became experts at organizing. We’d invite other kids over and we’d sort together. And I would hear my four year old explaining things to his friends and even to grownups about who refugees are. I even heard him saying “In Afghanistan they don’t speak Arabic, they speak Farsi!” I was so proud. I know people want to protect their kids from harsh realities, but there is always an age appropriate way to explain things to kids. And this issue is one everyone can understand. Kids know how important it is to have a home, to feel safe. They get it.
Did you have a background in non-profit?
No! I’d worked in digital advertising. My dream had been to become a big ad exec “boss lady.” But when I went back to work after having Ruben, my older son, I realized I was no longer motivated to just make money, I wanted time with my kids. So when I started my nonprofit, I didn’t know how any of it worked. I was flying a plane – I didn’t know how to fly, didn’t know if the plane was fully built, didn’t have a manual… But luckily as I was taking off, very accomplished people – engineers, lawyers, web designers – came knocking on my door, asking to help. So we now have legal officers who helped us file as a 501c3 – they should win a Nobel Prize for that application! – we have a CFO, a web master, chief tech officer… We have 28 people in our organization now doing amazing jobs, as volunteers. Our 6 paid staff members were new all arrivals themselves.
Wow, so you grew enough create jobs for them?
Our entire family services department is people who have been through the program. It’s employment and also a way for them to be of service and feel connected to their community. It’s fulfilling.
Any advice for moms who want to help but don’t know where to begin?
Look to your family, our neighbors, your group of friends. What problems can you solve? Every big problem is a collection of a hundred thousand mini problems. And do you know who’s good a solving a hundred thousand little problems? Moms!.