When her oldest daughter, Addyson, was born 20 years ago, it set Michelle Fonte on a new path. "I had a really unpleasant experience," said Fonte, who lives in Cutler Bay. "I wanted a natural birth, and I didn’t understand why everyone wouldn't support it."
So Fonte became a doula to educate expectant parents about their birth choices. Over the years, Fonte had five more children and expanded her outreach efforts. In October 2011, she and partner Tamara Taitt, a marriage and family counselor, opened The Gathering Place in Miami, a resource center for new and expecting parents.
Here’s how they did it.
The Big Idea
The Gathering Place, 5810 Biscayne Blvd. in Miami, offers a community of support groups, classes and workshops for moms and young families from pregnancy to preschool. There are doula services, lactation consultants and childbirth education classes. There are postpartum and breastfeeding support groups, as well as bereavement groups.
The center offers developmental play classes for young children, as well as workshops on topics such as vaccinations and VBACs (vaginal births after cesarean.) Acupuncture and massage services are available.
A $99 annual membership includes free events and discounts on classes, but non-members are welcome, too. Classes range from $19 for a single class to $300 for a series. Aid is available for financially eligible moms.
A doula and homeschooling mom of six, Fonte has made motherhood her business and her life. Fonte also is executive director of Project Motherpath, a not-for-profit organization she started to provide birth education services and support to young families.
Taitt, who is working on her doctorate in family therapy at Nova Southeastern University, has a master’s in marriage and family therapy from Nova and a bachelor’s in psychology from Princeton University. She also has an associate’s degree in midwifery from Miami-Dade College.
The women also run a small catering business, Savory then Sweet.
Fonte said her research was based on her experience.
"I’m around moms and babies every single day, and I hear what they need," Fonte said. "We didn’t have to do research in the community. I didn’t wake up one day and say, 'I have a good idea.' We were pushed into it, because there was such a need."
Taitt, who previously worked at Healthy Start Coalition of Miami-Dade, had studied the needs and healthy disparities of expectant moms and young families. She said there was a big need to fill in South Florida.
"You would expect Miami, a city of this size, to have five or six places that offer what we wanted to offer at The Gathering Place," Taitt said.
IF YOU GOThe Gathering Place, 5810 Biscayne Blvd., is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with support groups after hours and special events on Sundays. Call 786-953-6417 or visit theplacewegather.com.
The formation of The Gathering Place was an evolution, Fonte said. After she became a doula 20 years ago, Fonte started a food co-op, then a meetup for families. Then she started teaching classes, forming play groups and facilitating support groups, meeting in private homes and parks.
Three years ago, Fonte and Taitt rented a small office in Miami’s Design District to help get organized. They started a business plan to open the center and in August 2011 they found the perfect location.
The 3,000-square-foot center is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with support groups after hours and special events on Sundays. From her network of clients and friends, Fonte formed a group of about 15 practitioners who teach classes and provide services on an outsourced basis.
"We’re also very hands-on, teaching classes and facilitating all of the support groups," Fonte said. "I always want it to be like that. I never want to be sitting in an office, supervising."
Through parent feedback, Fonte and Taitt learned that moms wanted developmental classes for young children, so they added that to the mix.
"This place is organic," Fonte said. "It’s not only what we observed as needs, it’s what moms are telling us they want."
Fonte said they spent about $40,000 to build the website, outfit and lease the space and print marketing materials. Because they found the perfect space before they were ready financially, Fonte found a couple of client investors. They also used their catering expertise to hold fund-raising dinners and brunches, speaking about their mission and soliciting donations.
Word-of-mouth drives traffic, Fonte said, but they also rely on social networking through Facebook, where they post events and news. The MTV reality show, Quiero Mi Baby, found The Gathering Place on the Internet and filmed part of an episode at the center.
Traffic depends on the day, Fonte said. Two weeks after they opened, about 300 families attended an open house. Now the center serves about 50 to 60 families a month. It is not yet profitable, and the partners do not draw a salary.
"Paying the rent," Fonte said. "If we hadn’t found the perfect location so quickly, we would have been able to fund-raise more, enough to pay at least six months rent."
Fonte and Taitt have begun the zoning and permitting process to create a birthing center within The Gathering Place. They hope to open it this year. The partners also would like to open a satellite location in Liberty City and to expand the reach of Project Motherpath.
As a doula, Fonte is on call 24/7, to be ready whenever a client mom is about to give birth. She typically rises at 7 a.m. and begins the day with her five youngest children, ages 6, 11, 14, 16 and 18, who are homeschooled.
The mornings are typically very relaxed, Fonte said. While she cooks for later in the day, the kids will do their school work or hang out in the kitchen with her. Fonte heads to the office about midday, sometimes with the kids in tow, and may stop at a client’s on the way. She’ll stay at the office until 8 or 9 p.m., then head home to spend time with the older kids.
After all the kids are in bed, Fonte will get on the computer and work, sometimes until 1 or 2 a.m.
"If you have a passion, then find a way to make it work," Fonte said. "If we could do it, then anybody can. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can't."