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Groups work to fill the space caused by parenting company’s closing

New moms (from left) Sarah Mwangi, Sarah Slagsvol and Martha Loring and babies at the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center.

Jessica Rinaldi /Globe staff

New moms (from left) Sarah Mwangi, Sarah Slagsvol and Martha Loring and babies at the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center.

NEWTON — Bringing their 5-month-old babies into the lobby of the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center on a recent Tuesday afternoon, the six new moms entered a much-needed oasis.

A former gallery space off the lobby is the venue for a group for new mothers that had been abruptly disrupted by the sudden closure of Isis Parenting, a for-profit company that had offered popular maternity and early-parenting programs at locations in Arlington, Needham, Hanover, and Boston.

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A white divider blocked off a window that overlooked the lobby, and another window, offering a tableau of a snowy landscape, flooded light onto the shoeless mothers and their babies as they settled in for “circle time” on multicolored foam-rubber floor tiles.

“Hel-lo Oskar, hel-lo Oskar, hel-lo Oskar, we’re glad you came to play!” everyone sang before serenading Hudson, Will, Andy, Alden, and Nathan with the same friendly greeting.

Little more than a month after Isis announced on Jan. 14 that it was shuttering its doors and canceling classes immediately, several local organizations are filling the void by continuing Isis programs or expanding offerings for new and expecting parents.

The Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston alone has picked up seven disrupted parenting and fitness classes, and businesses such as Kidville in Wellesley have also added classes. Mommybites Boston has put in additional classes in Arlington and Needham, and has partnered with former Isis instructors as well.

“It’s really nice to go somewhere where you’re comfortable with your baby, where you feel like there’s stimulation for them, that is out of your apartment or your little neighborhood,” Martha Loring said before the recent Leventhal-Sidman class while her daughter, Alden, cooed in a pink cable-knit sweater.

‘It’s really nice to go somewhere where you’re comfortable with your baby, where you feel like there’s stimulation for them, that is out of your apartment or your little neighborhood.’

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“I took the first class, which is called Great Beginnings, at Isis, and it really made a world of a difference for me entering motherhood,’’ said Loring, who lives in Boston’s South End. “I was really looking forward to continuing that interaction because I just gained so much knowledge, and Isis did such a great job being both rooted in science but being more than just reading a book or talking to your friends.

“When I heard they were closing, I felt like there was a death. It sounds very dramatic but it was just such an intense feeling of loss for me because I associated so strongly with her early, early infancy and this place that had been so supportive of me.”

The JCC decided not to charge for the class Loring and the other women are taking, according to Samantha Levine-Neudel, the regional organization’s online marketing manager, because the women had already paid Isis for the session.

“We are still working out the details for the pricing for the classes that we will be offering,’’ she said.

“Our classes will run on average for about six weeks and will cost somewhere between 30 and 50 percent less than the Isis classes,” she said.

Founded in 2003 in Brookline as Isis Maternity , the company quickly cornered the market for parental education as well as breast-feeding, sleep, and potty-training support groups.

“Nobody wanted to do anything because Isis had the market,” said former Isis facilitator Dawn Ellis, who along with another Isis alum, Liz Berkman, will be teaching nondenominational parenting classes at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham. “So now that there’s this gap, the temple got hundreds of e-mails the day Isis closed. It was like, ‘What do we do?’ There were real people looking for something. So they responded to that.”

Isis had partnerships with several area hospitals, including one with MetroWest Medical Center forged just weeks before the company folded.

“If the hospitals tell you to go there, you can’t even compete with that,” Ellis said. “And I think they did a really good job with what they did. You come in and they were excellent at what they did. In terms of the community stuff, they really covered everything. Every worker there really, truly cared.”

The coordinator of the Watertown Family Network, Arlene Smith, said parents should consider programs like hers that are funded by state grants.

“There are quite a few resources for parents out there other than Isis and we are, of course, free, and Isis was for-profit, which is fine,” she said. “When I was listening to the news’’ about its closing, she said, “I was struck by the fact that it sounded as if Isis was the only thing out there, when there happens to be over 40 family networks throughout Massachusetts that service different towns and communities in different ways.”

Nevertheless, the company’s reputation was so strong, Ellis said, that former Isis instructors have been in high demand.

The JCC of Greater Boston has hired former Isis employee Joanie Olin to be its coordinator of early-parenting programs.

“It’s been a big whirlwind, but a fun one, fun and exciting,” the Needham resident said on her second day on the job at the JCC, after having spent six years at Isis. “After processing the shock and the sadness, we did realize, ‘OK, there are organizations and people that are still looking for all of this great help and services that we can still offer.’

“So that’s what we’re aiming to do here, and the values here at the JCC are in many ways so similar to the values we had at Isis.”

Prior to Isis closing, the JCC offered preschool, aquatic, and other enrichment classes for children and young families. Jeanne Lovy, the organization’s assistant vice president for young children and their families, said many of its members and employees had used Isis programs and immediately turned to the JCC for help last month.

“So for us it was a really natural evolution with this gap in what happened in the marketplace, the very surprising closing of Isis,” Lovy said. “It felt like for us this golden opportunity and we just kind of jumped on it. Normally we would spend longer planning and wrapping up.”

Although the JCC already offered programming for babies and toddlers, Lovy said, it never “aggressively” challenged Isis in its speciality areas.

“They had the market,” she said before adding, “Now we’re taking a look. I’m not trying to replicate exactly what Isis had. What we’re trying to do is understand our own mission and values, and build a program that makes sense to the JCC.”

She said the JCC will not introduce a retail component to its new offerings like Isis did, but will develop a curriculum that will be similar to its evidence-based parenting sessions that draw on the latest medical research.

Isis also offered many other services, from lactation consultants to sleep consultants.

Lovy said the JCC is hooked into a service network through other Jewish organizations, and is open to partnering with non-Jewish organizations to fill in the gaps.

Both Lovy and Ellis said the absence of Isis created a need for a network of providers and organizations to coordinate their efforts. For example, Ellis said, if she cannot offer someone a certain class on Friday, she would like to be able to direct them to someone who does.

“There’s enough babies to go around, so no there’s no reason to be competing,” Ellis said.

Providers may not be communicating just yet, but parents are.

The day after Isis announced its closing, a Facebook group called Friends of Isis Parenting was created to support parents and expecting mothers affected by the closure. With 474 members as of last week, the page is a clearinghouse for parenting help.

“This was created to collect the names of Boston area resources for new moms, due to the closing of Isis Maternity,” Caroline McCabe posted after creating the page.

Ellis looks forward to the diverse offerings of the budding marketplace.

“People underestimate how hard it is to become a parent,” Ellis said. “Becoming a parent is a humongous rite of passage, especially for a woman. It changes a person’s life. I think it’s important for people to be able to go somewhere they can honestly say, ‘This is hard,’ and everyone knows you are still a good mom.

“As soon as someone says it in a group, people say, ‘Thank God she just said that.’ It’s so validating. There is no other time you need support and validation from people going through the same thing,’’ she said, adding that is why Isis “was successful. It was a community that needed to be served.”

Justin A. Rice can be reached at rice.ju@gmail.com.
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