HOLMBERG: Richmond mom changes world, one baby sling at a time

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RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) - Before Kathryn Wiley became the head of an international corporation that is changing and saving lives, she was a new mom who wanted to “wear” her first baby.

“Hands down, the place the baby wants to be is right on you, she said from her Church Hill home. “I just thought I wanted to be close to my son, so I bought one.”

That would be a fashionable baby sling made by a Los Angeles company. It’s very common in other cultures, but not so much here, where there are baby seats, swings, high chairs, strollers and rollers.

She loved the hands-free, chest-to-chest contact the sling provided.

Wiley has worn all five of her children.

“None of my babies cried,” she said.

So when the sling company came up for sale at the start of 2011, she took a risk.

“I bought the company, moved it from Los Angeles to Richmond, changed it to ‘one-for-one.’ It was a total jump-off-a-cliff risk - that this is actually something people are going to love,” she said.

She moved the operation to Rockets Landing in east Richmond, and settled in to keep her promise to herself and the believers in her dream to give away one sling for every one she sells – “one-for-one.”

She settled on Haiti as the first place to distribute free Rockin’ baby slings.

“I saw they didn’t carry their babies in Haiti and I thought, ‘Are you kidding me? They have African roots. This doesn’t make any sense, and then found out they had the highest infant mortality rate in the western hemisphere,” she said.

She found the reason for the alarmingly high infant mortality rate is the mothers frequently leave their babies home while they get food and water and to work to support their families.

Why not allow them to take their babies – with hands free - to work?

A year ago August was her first trip to Haiti to distribute the free slings.

“It was amazing,” Wiley recalled as her children made gingerbread houses at the kitchen table. “”The women would put the sling on [and] their face was – Oh my gosh! – like I can have my hands free," she said.  "If you think about it, they can then go to the market and they can breast feed while they’re selling what they need in order to make money to buy food for their families and keep their babies close. It’s a matter of life and death.”

She and her family returned to Haiti in December with thousands of free slings, distributed through four giving partners. “We also have now a director of giving in country,” Wiley said.

Actor Sean Penn, who is active in helping those in Haiti and was in the country at the time, sent her an email praising her mission as “very cool, very practical, very appreciated.”

Wiley believes the wear-your-baby concept will continue to grow here and around the world, especially when mothers who buy a sling can see that they’re also  changing a mother’s life and that of her babies – perhaps even saving their lives. They plan to expand the sling drops to other countries as the company continues to prosper.

The slings she sells around the world are colorful and fashionable, but the ones she gives away are all the exact same color.  You can buy them here.

“Any time you see an orange sling with red rings around the world,” Wiley explained, “you know that you were part of that movement.”