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They gathered to remember.
Dozens of women of various ages, ethnicities and styles of attire—from a platinum blond in a leather jacket and jeans to a woman in plain Amish dress with a white headcovering—along with a smattering of children and a few men, gathered the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 23 at the commons room of Newberry Place.
They embraced old friends and renewed old relationships.
They sat at tables, stood along walls, shared food and talked.
And laughed. And cried.
And remembered a woman who had touched them all.
The women, mostly members of La Leche League of Grand Rapids, a branch of the international breastfeeding information and support organization La Leche League (LLL), gathered to remember Juliet Kauffman, who had served as a local LLL volunteer leader for 25 years before she died of liver failure Sept. 5 at age 61.
Many at the gathering described Kauffman as a champion of breastfeeding and a mentor who benefited many lives.
“I wonder how many breastfed kids are running around West Michigan who were affected by Juliet,” said Marie Ippel, a longtime LLL member who hosted the event.
Ippel fondly recalled the help Kauffman offered her when she was nursing her first child.
“When we started going to La Leche, she helped us with all the transitions that go with breastfeeding kids,” Ippel said. She added that Kauffman’s assistance included “lots of grace and encouragement—and she’s done that for how many thousands of women?”
Others confirmed Kauffman’s significant influence.
“She was a huge gift,” said LLL of Grand Rapids leader Connie Lemmick. “She’s left a big hole. She saved a lot of babies.”
“She saved a lot of moms,” interjected fellow leader Valerie Williams.
“She saved their relationships,” clarified Lemmick. “You have a different relationship when you breastfeed.”
Melissa Hale emphasized Kauffman’s sensitivity toward women who experienced challenges and confusion during their journeys with breastfeeding.
“She was a great listener,” said Hale. “She met you where you were . . . with no judgment.”
Hale added that Kauffman’s mentoring gave women strength.
“She empowered mothers,” said Hale. “She brought out the mother in each one of the women she helped.”
Jennifer Stoddard, who co-led Kauffman’s Grand Rapids South Kent meeting for five years, remembered how Kauffman helped women come to their own decisions about breastfeeding.
“She always had a gentle delivery in the way she spoke,” said Stoddard, tears welling up in her eyes. “She always had these wonderful stories that she was always incorporating to help you work out a problem.”
Stoddard called Kauffman “a leader guiding you to where you want to be.”
“She was always very positive and reflective,” Stoddard added. “She loved promoting breastfeeding, but if she found out you were switching to formula, she’d say, ‘You probably had to do that.’”
Stoddard also spoke of her own relationship with Kauffman.
“I called her a lot during my pregnancies,” Stoddard said. “Second to my mom, anything related to motherhood, she’d be the person.”
Sherron Collins, a LLL of Grand Rapids leader since 1971 and area historian for LLL Michigan, called Kauffman the organization’s local resource person.
“If you had a question, she either knew the information or she knew where to find it,” Collins said.
Laura Probst, a veteran LLL leader in Kalamazoo and district advisor for LLL of Grand Rapids, concurred with Collins and observed the effects of Kauffman’s longstanding commitment to the local LLL community.
“She was a real advocate for the moms and the leaders in Grand Rapids,” Probst said. She was just such a mothering, stabilizing force. She was a source of information, a source of support, of continuity. Some leaders retire; Juliet never did.”
Kauffman is survived by her husband of 33 years, Lyle Kauffman; their daughter, Caitlin Kauffman; and a sister, Melissa Whitney. All were present at the event.
A memorial gathering and life celebration will be held on Saturday, Nov. 3, from 2 to 4 p.m. in the social hall at Fountain Street Church, 24 Fountain Street NE, Grand Rapids.
David Urban is an English professor at Calvin College. Learn more about him at http://www.calvin.edu/academic/engl/faculty/urban/
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