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Why these bikers crisscross New York delivering donated breast milk

Members of the Sirens motorcycle club make a delivery in the Bronx in 2017. From left, Katie Ballantine, Kim Wetzel, Sandra Fleming and Jen Baquial. (April Diffut)

Alyssa Marko, a member of New York City’s Sirens Women’s Motorcycle Club, got an emergency call in the summer of 2016 from someone in her Brooklyn synagogue.

A woman in the synagogue was adopting a premature baby and she wanted her tiny son to have breast milk. The caller asked: Could Marko jump on her bike and bring an order of donated breast milk to the hospital?

Marko grabbed her helmet and road jacket, slid onto her Triumph and headed straight to pick up 48 bottles of milk from the newly formed New York Milk Bank — a nonprofit group that distributes donated breast milk to new parents who are unable to produce their own or have an insufficient supply.

It was just days earlier that the Sirens had volunteered to help the milk bank with deliveries. And in a moment of her worlds colliding — biking and her synagogue — Marko got the call.

The two-hour drive to the hospital in Middleton, N.Y., was her first run for the “Milk Riders” — the club’s new nickname.

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“I packed the bottles in ice inside my saddlebags and away I went,” she said. “I felt like I was driving with a purpose, but I didn’t understand the full magnitude of what I was doing until I got to the hospital and saw the baby. He was so small — it was clear that he really needed this milk.”

At the hospital that day, Marko, 55, a school psychologist who does not have children, said she was suddenly overwhelmed, realizing that the love of many women went into the milk she’d delivered.

“Their immune systems and all of their strength were getting poured into this child,” she said. “It felt wonderful that I was able to bring him this wonderful gift.”

The New York Milk Bank was started in 2016 by nurse practitioner Julie Bouchet-Horwitz, who for years wished she could make life easier for new mothers who wanted to breast-feed but were unable to.

Bouchet-Horwitz, who specializes in lactation issues, had personal experience in the difficulty of finding donor breast milk: In 1996, she and her husband adopted a baby girl from China who was failing to thrive, and she wanted to give her breast milk.

“It was really hard to find donor milk,” said Bouchet-Horwitz, now 69 and living in Ossining, N.Y. “So in the back of my mind, I always thought that I should start a milk bank.”

After Marko's first milk delivery that day in 2016, it quickly became apparent to Bouchet-Horwitz that her partnership with the motorcycle club was a huge benefit, she said.

“I’d been looking for a convenient way to get milk transported from our processing facility [then in Hastings, N.Y.] to Manhattan, when I saw motorcycles zipping in and out of New York traffic and decided, ‘That’s it,’ ” she said.

When Bouchet-Horwitz contacted the Sirens — the oldest all-female motorcycle group in New York City — they enthusiastically agreed to help.

“The world of breast milk donation was a foreign concept to me to begin with,” said Jen Baquial, 43, an electrical engineer from New Jersey who is the Sirens’ vice president. “But once I learned more about it, I thought, ‘Yeah, this makes sense.’ ”

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Because the motorcycle club often does community service projects related to the LGBTQ community and women's health, delivering breast milk to women and babies is a good fit, she said.

“It’s precious cargo — I carried 45 pounds of milk on my motorcycle once,” said Baquial, who rides a 2008 Harley-Davidson Super Glide.

“The best part, though, to be honest, is when we get to go personally to the homes and meet the moms and the babies,” she said. “That’s really rewarding.”

A lot of work goes into each bottle of milk sent out by the New York Bank, said Bouchet-Horwitz. Women who want to donate their breast milk go through a rigorous screening process before they are allowed to drop off bagged milk at 26 volunteer “depots” in New York, Vermont, Maryland and New Jersey, she said.

“It’s really taken off — we’re now distributing more than 20,000 ounces of donated breast milk every month and we’ve helped about 400 babies,” she said.

Donations are inspected, pasteurized, bottled and frozen at the nonprofit organization’s new headquarters in Valhalla, N.Y., before they are shipped out to depots and hospitals with dry ice or delivered to private homes by the Sirens.

The group sells the milk for $4.50 an ounce, which Bouchet-Horwitz says covers the organization’s operating expenses. Health insurance providers often cover the cost with a doctor’s prescription, she added.

“Moms of sick or premature infants make up the majority of deliveries, but we have also sent donor milk to LGBTQ families and parents who are surrogates, people who have adopted or are fostering babies, and moms who can't produce enough milk on their own,” she said.

Mothers who come in themselves to pick up milk orders are “more than anything, grateful to the women who have donated the milk,” she said.

For Elizabeth Shelley, a family nurse practitioner who lives in Manhattan with her husband and their 17-month old son, Teddy, there was no question that she would donate her excess breast milk to the New York Milk Bank as her son grew older and didn't need as much.

She said that she was inspired by the kindness of a friend who gave her more than two gallons of her own breast milk after Teddy was born and doctors determined that Shelley wasn’t producing sufficient milk for him.

“This friend came over and gave me more milk than I needed,” said Shelley, 32.

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April Diffut, a 36-year-old single mother, said she will never forget the first delivery of donated milk to her Bronx apartment after she brought her premature daughter, Arriella, home from the hospital in 2017.

“The demand was outweighing my supply,” she said. “So my pediatrician suggested the New York Milk Bank.”

Diffut was delighted, she said, when Jen Baquial knocked on her door one afternoon and hollered, “Milk delivery!”

“I opened the door and saw this ‘biker chick’ in a cool leather jacket and bandanna, holding my baby’s food supply in her hands,” she said. “I couldn’t help but smile. I opened the door and we became instant friends.”

Visits from the Milk Riders continued for two years, Diffut said.

“It gave me comfort to know that someone so cared about the well-being of my baby that they would volunteer their time to bring us donor breast milk,” she said.

Baquial said it was her honor to make the milk runs on her Harley.

“To watch these kids grow and thrive has been the coolest thing,” she said. “I’m waiting for that day when one of these little girls grows up and says, ‘I want to be a Siren.’ ”

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