By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
A month ago, a frustrated mommy wrote a post on the main message board of the Highlands Mommies, an online parents' group in northwest Denver. The note also landed in hundreds of e-mail inboxes. The subject was "wine jester."
"Anyone know the owners of the Winejester?" the woman asked. "We just had a ridiculously horrible experience, including being yelled at 'GET OUT! GET OUT AND DON'T COME BACK!' before I got two steps into the shop. I'd like to give the owner a chance to answer for this. Seriously, I am so shocked."
The Winejester is a wine shop near the corner of Tennyson Street and West 44th Avenue. It's been open three years. Though the owner, Chris Smith, isn't a Mommy herself, she's done her best to court the group, offering special Highlands Mommies tastings and discounts on Mother's Day. Many other businesses do the same sort of thing.
The Mommies, after all, are a powerful group. Its sheer size — there are 2,874 members — and its geographical concentration make it a formidable organization. Plus, any member can reach every other member instantaneously, whether the intent is to set up a play date, ask for breastfeeding advice, solicit donations for a holiday gift drive, alert neighbors to car break-ins, invite them to a political rally — or rant about a business.Video: Highlands Mommies take us on a windshield tour of the 'hood ... in a minivan
And although the women who lead the seven-year-old organization, Laverne Herrera-Hay and Elina Martinez, haven't tried to harness that power on a grand scale, the potential is there, and it makes some people wary.
"They have a lot of community sway," says Bill Rodriguez, past president of Highland United Neighbors Inc., or HUNI, the local neighborhood association. "I think whether or not people agree with them all the time, they're still listening and are talked about. They create conversations. They've become a force to be reckoned with."
Beginning in January, the Highlands Mommies plan to step things up, moving their online message boards, directories and classified listings to a more robust web platform that will be better able to handle the group's increasing demands. They'll also debut an improved public home page, listing events and other information.
The Mommies will also add four moderators to help managing directors Herrera-Hay and Martinez handle their extensive volunteer workload.
Over the years, the Mommies have gotten involved in crime prevention, park issues and the local schools. They keep a watch on everything and aren't afraid to speak up — something that has earned them the nickname of "Highlands Mafia."
Add in the fact that only parents who live in the neighborhood are allowed to join, and the Mommies have become shrouded in a certain kind of urban mystery.
"We have no intention of expanding our boundaries," says Herrera-Hay. "We are very much a community-based organization. Our motto is stay local, buy local — which means we like to go to DJ's Berkeley Cafe for breakfast as opposed to going to a Village Inn.... If we go outside our boundaries, it's not stay local, buy local anymore."
But so far, the group hasn't proven to be a pack of stroller-pushing Tony Sopranos — not really. When one of their rank complains about a business, she'll often be scolded online by scores of other Mommies who point out that the group is supposed to support the neighborhood, not kick it in the pants.
Chris Smith, who owns the Winejester, says she has a good relationship with the Highlands Mommies, though she is not one herself.
Smith explains the incident at her shop like this: A Mommy walked into the shop with her young children, who were dressed in costumes and masks. Smith's puppy got excited and rushed at the children. The Mommy reacted by extending her foot. Whether or not she meant to kick the dog, the puppy flew through the air and landed on his back. Smith wasn't there at the time, but a staff member asked the Mommy to leave.
The day after the Mommy complained on the listserv, several Mommies responded. "You call the owner of the store and give him or her a chance to explain before posting a note on Highlands Mommies," one posted. "The folks at Winejester have never been anything but pleasant.... The behavior described below is indeed out of character, but I'm sure there's an explanation for it."
Then she added a second admonition, one echoed by others: "We need to remember how powerful this listserv is when it comes to business reviews."
The group's directors feel the same way. "You're talking about the potential to really hurt a business," Martinez says. "I'm just not okay with that."
The Highlands Mommies started small. Legend has it that in 2003, a lonely mom posted a handwritten note on the corkboard at Common Grounds Coffeehouse: "Baby seeking baby for a play date" was the gist of it. Another mom who frequented the West Highland coffee shop answered the ad, and the Highlands Mommies were born. Or, at least, conceived.
The play dates grew into an online Yahoo group where moms could post messages to other moms. They e-mailed questions about diaper rash and breastfeeding, and shared concerns about nap patterns. It allowed new moms to find support, answers and friends, and it could be accessed anywhere, anytime.