It’s a busy October afternoon and Leni Calas is hard at work preparing to host a pre-teen Halloween party for her daughter, Max, while also brainstorming venues for a community-wide parenting event next year. She’s simultaneously taking care of her two-year-old, Roxy, who is running a fever. On top of it all, she’s scheduled a Skype call with a New York Family reporter who wants to learn more about her blog-turned-smash-hit of a website. In the end, she brings her computer into the kitchen to e-chat with me as she lays out some snacks.
Though it’s hard to believe, Calas hasn’t always been this bursting-at-the-seams busy. In fact, it was the relative boredom of being a stay-at-home mom that inspired her to start a blog during her second pregnancy. Frustrated with the lack of a regional one-stop guide when she was raising her older daughter Max, now 12, Calas saw a gaping hole in the community that she could fill. Today, Queens Mamas—a website built by parents, for parents—comprises around ten mommy contributors who write about all-things parenting in their neighborhoods. Two years after the site’s inception in 2009,
their collected words of wisdom now reach over 4,000 followers on Twitter and Facebook.
“What differentiates us is that we genuinely live in the neighborhoods that we write about,” Calas says. “I wrote the article on Halloween events because I live here, and people who read the website can probably see me [at the events].”
For someone who’s become a pseudo-celebrity in the parent blogosphere and who won First Place at the Queens Economic Development Corporations StartUP! Business Plan Competition just last year, Calas is surprisingly modest when it comes to talking about her achievements with The Mamas Network. “It’s really very mundane,” she humbly says of her typical day, which starts with getting her daughters up, dressed, fed and off to school. “[My day is] all on the computer, typing away.” What she neglects to mention, of course, is that the daily keyboard grind she does at local cafes and in between errands makes the family lives of thousands of readers more manageable and fun.
In running Queens Mamas, Calas is focused editorially on a single goal: buckling down on local neighborhood hotspots, tips and events. This specific niche is why the site largely caters to the five-years-old and under crowd (despite her desire to address all ages), and why Calas chooses to limit content outside of her borough. “There are plenty of places where a Queens parent can find out where to go in Manhattan,” she points out, shifting the attention to her writers’ steadfastly local perspective.
More importantly, as a New York native currently living in Astoria with unconditional love for the larger city, Calas pushes her website as a vehicle for long-term investment in all Queens neighborhoods. “The social responsibility element to what you do as a media [company] is encouraging growth through local business,” she argues, speaking in an impassioned but articulate manner that makes it clear why so many parents have fallen under the spell of her website. “We’re trying to encourage people to keep their families and their money close to home, so that economically—ultimately—the neighborhoods will be better.”
Besides stepping out of the virtual world, it was this hope of bringing businesses to service Queens parents in their own communities that largely inspired Queens Mamas’ first-ever expo last spring. Calas indignantly reveals that Queens has a grand total of three independent baby stores. For her, that simply doesn’t cut it.
The effects of the day-long fair were profound. Calas exclaims, “To say, ‘I’m going to, on one consolidated day, bring fifty businesses into your community [that will] service you and your children, give you stuff for free, and make your parenting life super easy’—it’s Christmas for parents.” That there were pregnant women lined up out the door and down the block only goes to show how much this two-way introduction was needed.
Following the success of the expo, Calas decided to work her publishing magic in two more NYC boroughs this past summer. Upholding her golden standard of homegrown content, she hired new wordsmiths to inject regional perspective into parenting in Long Island and Brooklyn. “Each website has its own editor and local contributors who give it the local flavor that moms search for online,” she promises, while continuing to oversee hires and even do some writing herself.
The current successes of The Mamas Network however, don’t mean that it’s always been smooth sailing. Transitioning from personal writing to working with web developers and managing a team took some adjusting. “I crashed my own website once, literally took it off the Internet,” Calas laughs. But when conversation turns to the joys of her job, she truly lights up.
“I love really making an impact on people who live in this area,” she says. “To have people email you or call you or see you on the street and really mean that you’ve been able to provide them with something that they didn’t have before—I love that the most.”
Calas similarly delights in empowering the other mothers who work for her: “To be able to stay at home with your kids, enjoy your life with your children, work and make money at the same time—that’s the holy grail of parenting, and I’ve been able to serve that up.”
Though her current focus is on ramping up the new sites for other New York parents, Calas is already dreaming of more potential projects: new events, guidebooks, perhaps even iPhone apps. And while it can be stressful managing a team of stay-at-home moms, this work structure ultimately speaks to the authenticity of The Mamas Network. “We’ve built a business around being parents, and the mothers who work for me make absolutely no apology for it,” Calas says, standing behind the novel workplace she’s created. “My ad sales manager’s toddler is running around while she’s on a business call, and that’s who we are. We live this life.”
To get your fill of Queens, visit queensmamas.com.
Leni’s Best Of Queens For Kids
Best Any Day Activity
Flushing Meadows Corona Park Pool and Rink is open all year round. Take a dip or skate a lap no matter the month. nycgovparks.org
Best Free Place To Go
5Pointz is a collection of graffiti-inked warehouse buildings in Long Island City right next to MoMA PS 1. 5ptz.com
Best Lunch Spot For Kids
BareBurger is a friendly and organic burger joint in the heart of Astoria with a delicious children’s menu. bareburger.com
Best Store For Kids
At SITE NYC in Astoria, you can buy your tot an “I Heart Astoria” onesie, a “Queens” pillow for your couch, and toys for all ages. sitenyc.com
Best Mommy and Me Class
“Fun with Chinese Characters” teaches language in oral- and performance-based lessons, using Chinese actors to play out stories live. funwithchinesecharacters.com
Best Tween And Teen Activity
Outdoor jet pools, hot tubs, waterfalls and sauna huts are only a few of the things that can be enjoyed at the Spa Castle in College Point. nyspacastle.com