Inc. Magazine x Amarillo

Meet the Guys Behind This Breast Milk Revolution

Hungry babies have an unexpected champion in this heroic firefighter and his brother-in-law.

Seated in a West-Texas coffee shop on a cold December day, Kyle Joy leans forward, smiles warmly, and begins to talk. His biceps bulge beneath his sweatshirt. The wad of Copenhagen tucked into his lip doesn't hinder his chatter. A passerby would be forgiven for thinking the big guy is recounting a Hail Mary during the latest Cowboys game. But they would be wrong. This firefighter is talking, with grace and intimacy, about breast milk.

Repeated studies have shown that breastfeeding is the best way for babies to develop healthy immune systems. But what does a family do when the mother is stricken with cancer or dies, and the breast milk source is removed? "This was never on my radar," Kyle explains. "When my wife was breastfeeding, I'd go in the other room. But now I talk about breast milk every day. It's my life."

Kyle's world changed in September of 2016, when his little sister had a fatal heart attack hours after bringing home her newborn son. Kyle's brother-in-law Cy was given no time to grieve. The petroleum oilman was suddenly left alone with an infant son, and the child was hungry.

When the Amarillo community heard about this young widower's plight, they responded. Within a week, Kyle and his mourning brother-in-law were trying to find room for the 40 gallons of breast milk that had been donated by Amarilloans.

"We didn't know if the milk was safe to give to my nephew," Kyle says. He and Cy asked their pediatrician, and the doctor's reply was blunt: "If you wouldn't have unprotected sex with the person who gave you the milk, don't feed it to the baby."

So, Kyle and Cy were left with dozens of gallons of unusable breast milk. For both men, this seemed like a problem in search of an answer. Thus began a journey for these fathers--the oilman and the fireman--into the labyrinthine and unregulated world of breast-milk banks. The more they learned, the more Kyle and Cy discovered that parents who are unable to breastfeed their newborns can find themselves in deep debt--to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Kyle folds his sturdy hands and leans in closer, speaking softly beneath the coffee-shop chitchat. "These milk banks are set up primarily to provide breast milk to neonatal intensive care units," he explains. "But once that baby is discharged from the hospital, insurance won't cover the milk. And that cost is passed directly to the family. This is a billion-dollar industry."

Kyle and Cy began their business with a simple question: What can a family do if they can't afford to pay eight dollars an ounce for breast milk?

To help those families, Kyle and his brother-in-law founded Third Strand. The nonprofit locates donor mothers and learns as much as possible about their health through questionnaires. Then, Third Strand contacts the donor's physician to verify the info. Through grants and fellowships, the company hopes to begin blood-testing each mother, a process that can run to $300 per donor. Kyle says he won't stop until motherless babies across America have an affordable source of healthy breast milk. "I'm focused on making sure every child who gets donor milk is safe. I think of every baby we serve as my nephew. And I wouldn't want my nephew to be in danger."

Kyle believes Third Strand couldn't have found success without the community spirit in Amarillo. "We were told by the milk banks that we were dumb, that we were wasting our time. But we've grown Third Strand from an idea to a successful nonprofit in a year." The firefighter pauses and glances around the bustling coffee shop, then adds: "The generosity of the people here has carried us."

Article originally published