by GOODly Women & Bathwater blogger Kathy Harris
Three years ago, on a snowy fall weekend in the Colorado mountains, my son and I were snuggled on the couch — him reading Hank the Cowdog and me, a magazine. I don’t remember which magazine, and I doubt he remembers which Hank book. But what we both remember is that at one point, he looked up at me and I had tears running down my face.
I had just read an article about the effect of homelessness on families. We hear a lot in the media about the stereotypical face of the homeless — adult males, suffering from mental health issues. I hadn’t given a ton of thought, though, to the growing number of homeless families with children.
The article provided an inside look at the issue, following two Chicago homeless families through their days and nights. One family with three school-aged children had lost their small home to foreclosure after both parents were laid off. The other family was made up of a single mom with two children under the age of 4. She had lost her job at Burger King because her baby had been in the hospital, and her mother, who had cared for the children while she worked, had passed away.
In the case of both families, the children usually wore their “day” clothes to bed. They’d go to a shelter as nighttime approached, take a shower if possible, then put their clothes back on to sleep in. Rarely did the shelters have enough pajamas to go around.
For some reason, this small, perhaps inconsequential-in-the-scheme-of-things fact broke my heart. I read the story out loud to my son, because he wanted to know what had brought on the tears, and because I wanted him to know how other kids live outside our comfortable existence — after all, his dresser was full of at least 15 pairs of clean, cozy pajamas.
His immediate response was not tears, but action. “We have to do something, Mom.”
That day, I called the Denver Rescue Mission, which runs a majority of the shelters in the Denver metro area (where most of Colorado’s homeless families live). I asked if what I’d read about Chicago shelters was true for their family shelters. The representative said yes, unfortunately, children’s pajamas, in all sizes, are always a need, especially in the colder months.
He said another huge need was blankets. Not only do they use a ton of them at night in the shelters, but many individuals and families take the blankets with them when they leave the shelters in the morning and go about their days in the Colorado cold.
When I asked about putting together a drive, he told me that not only would that be great, but that he could guarantee those pajamas and blankets would be distributed quickly. Any pajamas and blankets we collected would be keeping someone warm within days.
We started small. Along with my husband, we planned our first Warm PJ and Blanket Drive, putting out donation boxes and communications at my son’s small elementary school. We simply asked families to go through what they already had: Look through your dresser drawers for outgrown, but good condition, pajamas. Look in the linen closet for blankets that weren’t being used.
The donations came flooding in.
In a short, one-week period around Thanksgiving, with very little planning and communicating to a very small audience, we collected 200 pairs of warm pajamas in sizes from infant to adult, and nearly 100 blankets. Some people made it a point to purchase new items, and others provided money for us to buy something for them for the drive. We took that money to thrift stores to stretch the donation dollars with used purchases.
Since then, we’ve made this drive our family tradition each November. We’ve expanded the drive to include not only our son’s school community, but other donation locations, as well. My coworkers donate. Our neighbors donate. Friends donate. Even friends on Facebook and Twitter, living across the country, have donated. And each year, the numbers of donations have gotten bigger and bigger.
Thanks to that efficient distribution system of the Denver Rescue Mission, I love that our donations reach people who need them quickly. I can imagine a small child, tired from a long day — on the streets, on public transportation, in an only-family-possession car, or in school — putting on a pair of fleece footie pajamas and resting on a shelter cot for the night, warm as toast. I love that there’s a mother or father out there who can rest a bit, too, knowing their children are in clean, soft clothes while they dream their dreams.
I love that this was originally my son’s idea, and that he now knows he can count on his parents to help him make ideas reality. I love that he can see each year how one kind idea can trigger a wave of kindness and giving in others.
I know we’re not changing the world. We’re not curing cancer or raising thousands of dollars for families in need. There are bigger issues out there, and certainly so much more to be done.
But I think that’s the point I’d like to make. All it takes is a need and an action.
Sometimes to make a difference in someone’s life, something as small as a pair of pajamas can help.