Islandmoms is a virtual fixture on Bainbridge

(From left) IslandMoms moderators past and present Behan Gifford, Rebecca Rockefeller, Tracy Denlinger and Sarah Albee pose with their kids Friday. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
(From left) IslandMoms moderators past and present Behan Gifford, Rebecca Rockefeller, Tracy Denlinger and Sarah Albee pose with their kids Friday.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

t The online mothers’ community turns five, and meets live.

Sarah Albee joked that as a co-moderator for the online community Islandmoms, she felt a little funny about wanting to go to the group’s first official get-together.

Because one of the significant characteristics about this Sunday afternoon’s group potluck is that Albee and her Islandmoms co-moderator, Rebecca Rockefeller, played no part in its conception or organization. That leaves her feeling a little like a parent who’s proud that her child is evolving and maturing in a good direction, who doesn’t want to cramp the kid’s style, and who wants to see her thrive on her own.

“This is exactly what the list should be, that they are their own community,” Albee said.

Islandmoms officially began five years ago this past Tuesday, when Behan Gifford and Tracey Denlinger, two island mothers, set up shop as a Yahoo! group.

The two had met in Seattle in 1999, both members of a weekly play group in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood. One of the group’s other members, a former Microsoft employee, decided to set up a virtual online community they dubbed Madrona Moms. Membership spread, with people posting queries and comments about everything from schools to breast-feeding to jogging strollers. If it had to do with families, it was covered.

“It turned into a thousand-member tribe of people who lived in Madrona and were parents,” Denlinger said. “It turned out to be this wonderful resource.”

When Gifford and Denlinger moved to Bainbridge within a week of each other, they observed a phenomenon that many young families who are new to Bainbridge describe anecdotally. It wasn’t easy to forge connections, nor was it easy to find out the basic information necessary to get around. Who were the best pediatricians? Was there a place on the island that cut kids’ hair? And where, for goodness sake, could you buy children’s underwear on Bainbridge?

“We’ve got to start something like this around here,” they told each other.

So on Aug. 12, 2003, Islandmoms went live at Word of mouth and the friends-of-friends phenomenon did its work; the group now has over 1,500 registered members.

When Gifford and Denlinger began moving on to other pursuits – Gifford’s family is about to take an extended boat trip – Rockefeller and more recently, Albee, signed on. Those two had also become friends in a mom’s group, this time on the island.

Albee works as a Web developer out of her home; she and her husband, Matt, also own and operate Eleven Winery here on the island. Albee says she and Rockefeller, a stay-at-home mom, make a good team in terms of ongoing and consistent coverage.

Fundamentally, Albee said, there are very few limitations as to what can and can’t be posted on Islandmoms. The primary rule is that “because we are an island community, we will delete (posts) that are disparaging about another.”

And on the main, past and present moderators agree that Islandmoms has offered a respectful environment where people understand, as Gifford puts it, that “we all need to place nice in the sandbox.”

There was one exchange awhile back that caused friction, when a member posted a question about a local business that led to a number of negative responses being posted publicly. After careful consideration, the moderators – who, Albee notes, are themselves varied in their opinions – determined that negative posts wouldn’t be permitted to go live; rather, members could reply individually to other members with that type of feedback.

“We’re just a small enough group, and there are always ways to get people the information,” Albee said. “But we don’t want to start bashing.”

The only other area that’s proved controversial is selling or giving away goods or services, neither of which is allowed. The exclusion caused some bristling among members. But while they all want to see island-based businesses succeed, moderators also want the site to be a community resource, not a marketing vehicle or a “freecycle” alternative. So they’ve stood firm.

“This unique, character-filled vehicle for our community doesn’t need to be a vehicle for people to sell this (stuff),” Denlinger said.

On the flip side of the occasional kvetchy kerfuffle lie the heartwarming stories, like the foster mom who procures car seats for her kids; the person who’s stressed about being a working mom and needs a friendly ear (or a dozen); or the person who’s brand new to the island and is desperate for connection.

“I don’t know how I functioned in a new community before things like this existed,” Denlinger said.

There are also noteworthy Islandmoms-generated community efforts, like Sunday’s picnic and the upcoming spray park at the Bainbridge Aquatic Center, whose genesis was an online discussion.

But the best story in recent memory came from a bride-to-be who on the afternoon of her wedding learned that her officiant had to cancel. She happened to be sitting in the tasting room at Eleven Winery when she got the bad news.

“I just tapped on IslandMoms,” Albee said. “‘Anybody on the island able to perform a wedding?’”

They got three responses, and the nuptials proceeded on schedule.

“It’s just really, really great to know that you can create happy stories, or have a part in the creation of happy stories,” Gifford said.

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