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Effingham Magazine

Maggie’s Milk Community

Story by Kelly Harley | Photos by Michelle Holloway

On November 17, 2019, six-month-old Maggie Hesling’s life changed forever. In a matter of hours, she lost both her parents and her four-year-old brother. Little did she know that through the tragedy, her support system would only grow. Friends, family, and strangers bonded with Maggie through a special gift, which she will always cherish.

Emily Burnside remembers sharing her first pregnancy with her best friend, Brittany Hesling. Emily was having a girl, and Brittany’s gender was kept a secret. “We were six weeks apart in pregnancy. Brittany had 10-pound Jack, and she helped me through the first stages of being a mom. She was the absolute best mom.” In 2018, Emily had another baby, and in May 2019, Brittany gave birth to Maggie.

On November 16, 2019, Brittany celebrated her 31st birthday, and she, husband Chris, Jack, and Maggie traveled from their home in St. Marys, Georgia, to Florida to see dolphins. On their way home, they were hit head-on by a wrong-way driver on a highway in Gainesville, Florida. Brittany and Chris were killed instantly, and Jack, who was transported to the hospital, was put on life support, but then taken off and his kidney donated.

Maggie miraculously suffered only a few bruises. “When we got the news, we were all so completely broken. Chris, Brittany and Jack were open, funny, caring and full of personality. For all of us, especially the brothers and sisters who adored them, they truly were someone to look up to,” said Kim Hesling, Chris’s stepmother.

Brittany and Chris were high school sweethearts who grew up in Effingham County. They stayed together through college and eventually made their home in St. Marys. Emily and Brittany were born a day apart. They shared everything best friends share, and so when Emily heard the news, she went from grieving best friend mode to mom mode.

She remembered Brittany telling her that she wanted to breastfeed Maggie until her first birthday, but with only a little of Brittany’s breastmilk left in the freezer, she had to get creative. “I made a Facebook post about donating breast milk for Maggie, and it went viral. I had so many people reach out to me, and several hundred ounces were donated within a few days,” says Emily.

Then within a few months, 6,000 ounces of milk were donated. Friends, family, and strangers shared their milk. “After learning that she needed breastmilk, even though I was living in Pennsylvania, I knew I had to help. I reached out to the breastfeeding support group at Penn State University, and everyone wanted to help. Seven mothers met me all over the University Park campus to share their milk,” says breastmilk donor Katherine Schneider. “With the help of an anonymous donor, we shipped 550 ounces of frozen milk to baby Maggie.”

“I have four kids, and baby number four was the first to refuse a breastmilk bottle. I was sad and a little frustrated, but a month later, I heard about Maggie’s need for breastmilk and knew God had a bigger plan. I was honored to donate all of my breastmilk to Maggie to help her get through her first year happy and healthy,” says donor Jeanine Webster

It Takes a Village

It was a community effort. Friends of Chris and Brittany donated deep freezers to store the milk. Numerous people drove milk from places like Atlanta, Jacksonville, Tennessee, and Alabama. Emily and two of Brittany’s other best friends, Amber and Erika, made Brittany’s mom’s home a command station. They raised more than $50,000 in donations to include food, diapers, baby items, and more. “How Emily was able to organize getting milk from all over was nothing short of amazing. I’ve heard the phrase ‘light in the darkest hour’ before, but I never truly understood its full meaning until this,” adds Kim.

Maggie has a total of 77 milk mommies and 81 milk brothers and sisters. Emily says each bag of milk was pumped with love, and many moms wrote Bible verses on the bags of milk and included notes of love. “Each time I reached out to one of the milk moms, I told them that I promised if the situation were reversed, Brittany would be helping them, too,” says Emily.

On May 7, 2020, Maggie celebrated her first birthday. She is a happy, healthy baby and a perfect combination of both her mother and her father. Of all the gifts she received that day, the best gift came from her mother. “We had one bag of Brittany’s breast milk left, and we kept it until Maggie’s birthday. Her last cup of breast milk was from her mom,” says Emily. A true gift from the heart.

“As Maggie grows, I know there will be times that will be hard knowing what she lost that day, but the beautiful things that took place in the aftermath sure will be one amazing story to tell,” says Kim. “When we say prayers with her at night, we always say a prayer for the milk mommas and milk babies and everyone who blessed us and helped us.”

Emily says she will never move on from losing her best friend. Instead, she will move forward and remember the love that came out of all of this. It started with a healthy 6-month baby girl who needed breastmilk. A Facebook post, a few phone calls, and many prayers later, Emily never would have imagined she would have over 650 messages, 325 texts, numerous phone calls, and a promise to Maggie.

“There are no words to express the love and gratitude that we have towards Maggie’s Milk Community,” adds Emily. As one donor mom wrote: “This story of milk sharing illustrates that motherhood is a universal bond that knows no boundaries. Mothers from many towns, cities, states, and countries came together to help another mother fulfill her wish to breastfeed her baby.”