Breast cancer victim's dedication leads to 'mothering rooms' at Toyota offices nationwide
During her 17 years as an administrative assistant at Toyota’s Ann Arbor research and development office, Karen Reynolds raised three girls.
But it was after her first was born in 1996 that she noticed a problem at the Ann Arbor office - she wanted to nurse her child, but there was no area or room to accommodate her.
Reynolds was the first woman working at the office to have a child, so her boss said she could use her breast pump in a roped off stall in the bathroom, but she would have to take care of keeping the area clean because the janitorial staff didn’t want to deal with it.
In January 2003, after raising her three children through infancy and using the bathroom at Toyota to breast feed, Reynolds was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer, and in 2007 she died at the age of 38, after a four year battle.
But, because of Reynolds’ insistence on nursing her children and persistence in doing so despite the circumstances, the Ann Arbor office, and now Toyota offices around the country, are installing “mothering rooms” where mothers can go to breasts feed their child.
The company recently asked Reynolds’ mother, Donna Renton, for pictures of Karen Reynolds’ three children; Noelle, Taylor and Kassidi. Those will hang on the wall with pictures of other children whose mothers work at Toyota and utilized the room.
“It’s very humbling for our family,” Renton said. “This happened because of Karen wanting to do what she did and her desire to be a good mother who raised good kids.”
A tribute written by a coworker to Reynolds hung on the wall of the mothering room called her a “pioneer for working mothers” and noted that there were no facilities at the time she had her babies.
Tom Perkins | For AnnArbor.com
“Undaunted, Karen went to great lengths to create one . She endured a lot in a mostly male working environment to make the choice to breastfeed. She was so completely dedicated to doing what was best and healthiest for her children that she did not let anything get in her way.”
The tribute, from an engineering manager, continued that “mothering rooms” created throughout the company have made it easier for her and others to choose to breastfeed.
“Breastfeeding is a very special bonding experience between a mother and a child, and I will always be grateful to Karen Reynolds for the bold choices she made before me that enabled me to have this experience,” it read.
Reynolds learned she had cancer on her way to work, and Renton said the company was more than accommodating from day one as she fought the illness for four years.
“She got sick and I cant believe how they treated her - fabulous. It was overwhelming,” Renton said.
She said her daughter spent 17 years at the Toyota office in Ann Arbor and considered her coworkers her family away from home. Her passing had an impact on people not only at the Ann Arbor office but in the company’s highest levels.
Upon learning Reynolds died, her boss called the family in tears and asked if he could give the eulogy. He was a practicing Muslim and had never been to a Christian funeral, but he said it was the only way he felt he could tell the world about who Reynolds was.
Toyota’s president at the time even flew in for Reynolds’ funeral to pay his respects.
The year after she passed away, Toyota held a 300-person luncheon in Reynolds’ memory, and asked Renton to speak.
“People have asked us how have we cope and it’s called family,” Renton said. “Toyota was her family away from home. She gave 110-percent at work, and we did not know until then the number of people’s lives she touched.”
Reynolds was known for driving an F-350 pick up truck, and when Toyota wanted to develop the Tundra to compete with Ford and General Motors, they flew her to California on several occasions to give a woman’s input on the vehicle.
Reynolds lived with her husband and three kids in Sumpter Township and grew up in Van Buren Township, attending Belleville High School. The school recently added her to their “distinguished graduates” list for her work in helping bring mothering rooms to Toyota facilities.
“Karen was 100 percent family,” Renton said. “Everything she did was for her family, even when she left us, she did it because she could no longer let her family suffer.”
Reynolds’ daughters are now 13-, 15- and 16-years old, and attending Lincoln Schools. Tayler and Noelle Reynolds play soccer, and the team is held a special fundraiser for a local family battling cancer. Another player, Alexa Schrock, lost her mother to liver cancer, and the team raised over $1,000 selling shirts with a ribbon that's half pink and half green to represent breast and liver cancer.