EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ--On the afternoon of Friday August 12, children played unphased in the front lobby of the Raritan Valley YMCA as their mothers nursed their baby siblings.
About a dozen mothers and children gathered in the front lobby of the Raritan Valley YMCA, located on Tices Lane in East Brunswick, where an incident of alleged discrimination against a breastfeeding mother recently took place.
The "nurse-in," a form of a peaceful protest organized by a network of concerned mothers from across the state, came on the heels of the August 5 incident.
Many more have taken to the review page of the Raritan Valley YMCA to express their opinions on the incident.
The current law states, according to N.J.S.A. 26:4B-4.2, that:
Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary, a mother shall be entitled to breast feed her baby in any location of a place of public accommodation, resort or amusement wherein the mother is otherwise permitted.
Colleen Sullivan says her right to breastfeed her child in public was violated when Raritan Valley YMCA Executive Director Gina Stravic told her to not breastfeed her child in the lobby when picking up her child in the afternoon from summer camp.
Sullivan says she was made to feel humiliated and left the center in tears.
Sullivan says she reached out to YMCA headquarters (YMCA of the USA) about the incident, but was told that since YMCA's are independently run, and that breastfeeding policies may vary.
"We are in receipt of your email sent to YMCA of the USA regarding breastfeeding at the Raritan Valley YMCA," writes Rosie Pitchford-Byrd, Service Center Manager for YMCA of the USA. "We take your concerns seriously and we regret that you felt it necessary to bring this matter to our attention."
"YMCA of the USA does not have any control over the day to day business operations, employment relationships, membership, and/or contractual obligations of any YMCA," reads the email sent to Sullivan on August 8.
"Since the YMCA of the USA does not own or control local YMCAs, your concerns are a matter that would be properly addressed to the Raritan Valley YMCA. As a courtesy to you, I will forward your communication to Raritan Valley YMCA, so that they are aware of your concerns. We trust they will respond to your concern."
On that same day, Colleen Sullivan was refunded all fees for the summer camp enrollment, after receiving a short email from Executive Director Stravic, stating, "Please be advised that at your request, the camp fees of $1180 paid were reversed on your credit card today. I am sorry for the upset."
When asked for comment on the incident, Gina Stravic told New Brunswick Today, "It's a legal situation, so I'm not going to get involved with that."
On August 18, Sullivan met with the New Jersey Office of Civil Rights to discuss the matter.
"If I were new to breastfeeding or motherhood, this would've either made me stop nursing for fear of someone degrading me again or I'd never leave the house and be stuck to a pump," Sullivan told New Brunswick Today after the meeting.
There has been a number of reported incidents at YMCA's all over North America, where mothers have been told to not breastfeed in public by YMCA staff.
At the nurse-in protest, Colleen Sullivan got the chance to speak to administration about her grievances, and how, she says, she was made to feel humilitated for no reason.
Stravic was on vacation during the protest, but other members of the administrative staff at the Raritan Valley YMCA were accomodating to the families, offering to bring out more chairs for them.
Christine Clark, from Lake Hopcatong, tells New Brunswick Today that the mothers who were present at the protest are part of a network of mothers who empower each other on social media.
She says after Sullivan shared her review of the YMCA with the group, the breastfeeding community rushed to support her.
"You have to do what's right for your kid," says Clark. "You'll find that everyone has an opinion on everything you do. That's why you've got to have a thick skin."
"It's a free way to feed your child," points out Annie Humphrey, an adjunct professor from Forked River. "It's something you don't think about until you are a mom, then you think about it every day."
"You can't just casually do it. It is an entire lifestyle," said Humphrey about nursing child in public. "Every time you decide to feed your child in public, you are taking a stand."
Humphrey added, "Only recently has formula become the norm...Just decades ago, most people were breastfed."