GREENFIELD — When Denise Wuchner stopped breast-feeding her elder daughter a few years ago, she found herself tossing out about five gallon-sized plastic bags full of unused breast milk that she had stored. It felt wasteful, and she wanted to know what more she could do.

So by the time Wuchner was heading home from the hospital with her second daughter, she had a plan for what to with any leftovers that might end up crowding her refrigerator while nursing.

Wuchner is one of handful of Greenfield mothers who regularly donate breast milk to The Milk Bank depot at Hancock Regional Hospital. It’s simply a freezer in the hospital’s basement, but to families of premature babies across the country — whose mother aren’t yet producing enough milk to feed them when they are born — it means so much more, hospital officials said.

More than 3,500 ounces of breast milk have been donated to the Hancock Regional’s milk depot since it opened a year ago. And as the donation center celebrates its first birthday, officials say they’d like to see more local mothers joining the initiative.

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The Milk Bank is an Indianapolis-based nonprofit dedicated to collecting breast milk from willing mothers across the Midwest and distributing it to babies in need. Moms drop their donations off — portioned into plastic bags a few ounces at a time — at depots like the one at Hancock Regional. Those bags are then sent to neonatal intensive care units across the United States.

Hancock Regional doesn’t have a neonatal intensive care unit, but officials said it’s important to support neighboring facilities that offer specialized care to infants born early or with special needs.

The donated milk goes a long way to help premature babies progress properly, said Linda Garrity, who runs the milk depot at Hancock Regional. It is rich with vitamins and nutrients needed by newborns and can make all the difference in whether underdeveloped babies make it through the first few weeks of life.

“We’re talking about survival in this little bag,” Garrity said. “Most of (the mothers) are just doing it out of the kindness of their heart because they know it’s a good thing to do.”

The Milk Bank, originally founded as the Indiana Mothers’ Milk Bank, opened in 2005 as a facet of Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital with a mission to bring breast milk to all babies, especially those who are ill or premature, according to spokeswoman Carissa Hawkins.

As the organization’s network grew, its founders were able to create an entity separate from the hospital and began opening drop-off stations across the Midwest, as far north as Wisconsin and as far south as Kentucky.

There are 20 depot locations in Indiana, including the organization’s headquarters in Indianapolis, Hawkins said. The milk mothers donate is sent to more than 100 hospitals from Chicago to Atlanta, she said.

Breast milk is widely considered one of the most highly effective preventive measures a mother can take to keep her child healthy, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It acts like a child’s first vaccine, and it is particularly important in helping premature build up antibodies needed to fight again diseases, Hawkins said.

Because the mother of a preemie might not be producing enough to feed the child at the time of birth, many families with children in the neonatal intensive care units rely on donations.

“For a baby whose mother can’t provide them milk, for whatever reason, donor milk is the next best thing,” Hawkins said.

The Milk Bank puts its trust in mothers of healthy babies, mothers who produce more milk than their own child needs and are willing to help out, Hawkins said.

From there, organizers say, their goal is to make the donation process as safe and easy as possible. At Hancock Regional Hospital, moms don’t even have to get out of their cars, Garrity said; they call the hospital to arrange a drop-off time, and someone meets them curbside.

Women who donate to The Milk Bank need to have good general health and not be at risk for illness, Hawkins said.

The screening process includes a 15-minute phone interview and a blood test, the organization’s website states. Those who use illegal drugs, tobacco products or smoke and those at risk for or test positive for certain diseases are not eligible. The mother also must commit to donating 100 ounces of milk — that’s just more than three quarts — by her baby’s second birthday.

Each ounce is equal to about three feedings for a premature baby, so even the smallest donation can make a big difference, Garrity said.

That commitment is something moms like Wuchner take seriously.

Wuchner estimated her donations have been in the thousands of ounces in the 10 months that have passed since her second daughter was born; she stopped keeping a tally, she said, but guesses she takes about 500 ounces to the hospital’s depot with each visit.

And she’ll keep donating for as long as she can, she said.

“I figured if I had enough to feed my own child and some left over, I might as well give it away,” Wuchner said. “If it’s good enough for her, it will be good enough for someone else.”

Get involved

If you are a mother producing more breast milk than your baby needs, you may donate your milk to The Milk Bank depot at Hancock Regional Hospital, 801 N. State St. in Greenfield.

Donor milk is used to feed premature babies whose mothers are not yet producing enough milk.

For more information about becoming a donor, visit  themilkbank.org or call 877-829-7470.

If you are already a Milk Bank donor, Hancock Regional Hospital can accept your donation at its drop-off site. To drop off milk, call the education coordinator at 317-468-4383 to set up a drop-off time.

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.