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Uma Thurman Puts Motherhood Center Stage

How the "Smash" actress and mother helps low-income parents and babies. Plus, why she thinks "balance" isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Uma Thurman and Room to Grow

The neighbor was Julie Burns, a social worker (and wife of documentary producer Ken Burns), who had spent years working as a psychotherapist with older children with behavioral problems as well as troubles with depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and violence. She was hauling all those supplies for her new charity, Room to Grow, which helps expectant moms living in poverty.

Burns had decided she needed to intervene earlier in children's lives.

"There was a profound lack of services for children in poverty from birth to age 3," she says. "These families want the very best for their children, just like parents with more resources do. I wanted to create an organization that would provide for their material needs, but also help parents navigate all the emotional and practical challenges that come with raising a young child, while at the same time facing all of the obstacles that poverty injects into your life."

That hit home with Thurman. "It's undebatably unjust for children to suffer," she says. "Going through the process of becoming a parent, naturally you see very closely how frightening, how overwhelming, and how important it is to you, and how much you want the best for your child. It brought it so close to home to imagine what it would be like to face all those things without a job, without resources, without support."

From that late-pregnancy encounter in an apartment hallway came a 14-year partnership. Thurman became one of the founding board members of Room to Grow, which now serves hundreds of families in New York City and Boston. Expectant parents are referred to the organization by prenatal programs for low-income families. They're given all the supplies they need for their new arrivals from among thousands of new and gently used baby and toddler items donated by area families. But the material side of parenting is only part of the organization's efforts.

The Needs of Low-Income Families

"You can't just drop in and get stuff and go," says Burns. From pregnancy through toddlerhood, families meet one on one with Room to Grow staff clinicians, who monitor the baby's growth, teach families parenting skills, and help them navigate problems like finding affordable housing, looking for a new job, and getting a GED.

"It's about helping people become successful parents," says Thurman, who doesn't just slap her name on charitable solicitations. She devotes days to board meetings and planning retreats for Room to Grow, plunging into balance sheets and tackling challenging decisions about how to expand the charity's reach. "How do parents access subsidized child care so they can work? How can they afford dental care for their child? Whatever the issue is, from the medical to the personal, Room to Grow is there for people who might otherwise be overwhelmed."

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