When Jim and Tracy Gilmore moved to Moorpark last year, they found themselves without baby-sitters and without friends.
Because they didn't know anyone, the couple felt uncomfortable leaving their daughter, Siobhan, with neighborhood teen-agers. For baby-sitters, they had to rely on family living more than a half-hour's drive away.
Then Tracy Gilmore read about the Moorpark MOMS Club and its baby-sitting co-op. She signed on and has since made new friends and found people she could trust to baby-sit.
"You don't feel like you're imposing," she said of the co-op, which uses play money coupons to pay for baby-sitting.
The coupons represent intervals of time. Each new co-op member starts out with 20 hours of coupons and a list of parents in the group and the names and ages of their children.
There is no state licensing involved, Tracy Gilmore said, because the arrangement is the same as if someone engaged a regular baby-sitter. Liability is covered through home insurance policies.
Founded two years ago by MOMS Club members, the co-op can accommodate up to 25 families. Twenty families are in the co-op now.
"It's important that we all know each other well," said Joanel Bernhard, a co-op member. "A big group would not allow that. I don't know what I'd do without the co-op. We're able to swap evening time, too. When you go out and spend $50 on dinner, then have to come back and pay the baby-sitter, it is too expensive to even go out. Besides, finding a good baby-sitter is really tough."
When parents sign up with the co-op, they fill out a medical consent form that is filed with the family's hospital and doctor. A copy of the child's medical information, which includes physician and hospital phone numbers and details of any special health needs, is kept on file with the co-op baby-sitter. If an there is an emergency when the child is being cared for by a co-op member, the child can be taken to the hospital or doctor and get treatment.
Teresa Montgomery, president of the MOMS Club and one of the original organizers of the co-op, said there is little bureaucracy involved in running the group.
"When someone joins us, we have them fill out a form telling us what hours they can baby-sit and what hours they may need a baby-sitter," Montgomery said.
Six times a year, co-op members host events so that parents can get together and see how their children get along.
At a recent summer party organized by the co-op, toddlers splashed in wading pools, made bubbles by dipping plastic six-pack holders in a pan and threw water balloons.
The potluck event featured favorite kid food: Jell-O with Gummi Bears, pizza, hot dogs, and macaroni and cheese. The parents dined on quiche and pasta salad and talked about kids.
One mother at the party said she belongs to two co-ops and "likes to go out a lot. I spend my coupons like water," she said. Another woman she was talking to needed some baby-sitting done and an accord was reached.
"I feel like I've made so many close friends," said Julie Gates, the co-op's treasurer who hosted the summer party in her back yard.
"Our social lives have really changed, and I find myself spending a lot of time with these people."
The MOMS Club of Moorpark, which was founded two years ago, is but one local chapter of an organization that has its roots in Ventura County.
The MOMS Club was founded in 1983 by Mary James, mother of two daughters and a writer who works out of her home in Simi Valley.
"There were no organizations open to mothers at home," James said. "You had to leave your children behind with a baby-sitter if you wanted to do anything. If you're new in town, it makes it harder to get out because you don't know where to find a baby-sitter. So, I thought 'Why not start something where mothers have input in the community and have the children in tow?' "
James said the Simi Valley group was so successful that other groups were formed soon after. Now, James said, there are 52 MOMS Club chapters in 15 states with a total of about 4,000 members.
"The MOMS Club is spread by word of mouth," James said. "It's hard for other mothers to find out about us, but once they do and see how supportive it is, they want to start MOMS Clubs when they move to new towns. The first other chapters started when one of our members moved to Nashville, Tenn., and put an ad in the paper saying she was starting a MOMS Club. She had more than 100 responses."
Besides the MOMS Clubs in Moorpark and Simi Valley, there are chapters in Ventura, Oxnard, Thousand Oaks-Newbury Park, Agoura-Westlake Village and in the west San Fernando Valley. James said other Southern California locations include a 100-plus member chapter in the Santa Clarita Valley, plus branches in Palmdale, Redlands, Yucaipa, Riverside, Redondo Beach and Lake Arrowhead.
"I've had some really affirming letters from other mothers," James said. "One woman wrote me that joining the MOMS Club really saved her life. So many of the mothers get really lonely staying at home. We provide a support group that includes the little ones."
James said the MOMS Club is a nonprofit organization, ranked as an education and charitable group.
"No one makes any money," James added. "All the fees are for the club alone."
When a new chapter opens, it pays a $30 registration fee to the MOMS Club national headquarters in Simi Valley. Members are usually asked to pay $10 to $20 a year.
Anyone who wants to start a MOMS Club in their area or to find out how to join one should call James at 526-2725.