Valerie’s Story: A Mother-Daughter Team Runs Our New Crystal City Office

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Mother-daughter team Valerie Phillips and Rachel Pruneau, respectively, didn’t intend to challenge the stereotype that mothers and daughters can’t work together―though they have their moments, as Valerie says. Together they run the latest Helping Hand Me Hand Me Downs location in Crystal City, Missouri, with the goal of serving Jefferson County and the surrounding area.

Valerie’s journey to nonprofit work came from an inherent love of helping others, but also her own adversity, in the form of an abusive relationship with her daughter’s father and the death of her infant son due to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), which left behind the near insurmountable task of sorting through the extreme grief. It was the latter that propelled Valerie into working with Infant Loss Resources 17 years ago, and organization that serves families affected by infant loss and seeks to share information and resources to prevent it. She eventually served as the organization’s Pack-n-Play coordinator, which connected her to Helping Hand Me Downs’ founder Stephanie Williamson.

Keep reading for our Q&A with Valerie to learn more about her journey and experience.

 Valerie Phillps, left, Stephanie Williamson, right

Valerie Phillps, left, Stephanie Williamson, right

What galvanized you to spearhead the opening of a Helping Hand Me Downs in Crystal City?

Stephanie and I connected back when I was working with Infant Loss Resources, and we’d refer new clients to each other. I live in Jefferson County, in Festus, and a couple of years ago my daughter and I started collecting items for families during Christmas. We knew a grandmother who’d gotten custody of her grandchildren and needed basic items to house them: things like a new bed, furniture and clothing. So we started there, and just kept moving forward. It became very clear to us that there was a strong need for what Helping Hand Me Downs does in Jefferson County, and my daughter and I were trying to figure out how to make that happen. We began talking to Stephanie about opening a location here, and it worked out really nicely. It’s been a really great partnership that we know will benefit a lot of people.

As someone who has experienced many of the traumas that many of your clients have endured, do you find that you’re uniquely suited to be helpful?

I really do. We had a woman who came in last week, for example, who’s pregnant and staying in a shelter for women who are victims of domestic violence. I could relate to her. When it became clear I could no longer stay with my daughter’s father, we left with a trash bag full of clothes and that was all we had. I gave her my number and told her to give me a call if she needed anything. I also give everyone a pamphlet on safe sleep information, which lays out how to put your baby to sleep to prevents SIDS, accidental suffocation and other problems like that. I’m not shy about my past. I understand, and I’ve been through much of what the families who come in here are dealing with. It’s incredibly difficult.

 Valerie Phillips, James Owens

Valerie Phillips, James Owens

What is it like to be on this side, where you’re able to help others with your story and experience?
It’s an amazing feeling. And being able to provide them with the basics, just those simple things they need to get by, is very fulfilling. We don’t have a ton of people coming in yet because we’re still so new, but we’ve been getting the word out all over town and giving them our information. We went to the Division of Family Services to let them know we exist--they were ecstatic--all the way to the police department. You never know where you’ll find people who are looking for the kind of services we provide.

Our offerings are starting to grow as well to meet the need, so we don’t just provide newborn clothes and items. We also have feminine products, personal hygiene products, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes and things like that―things you can’t get with food stamps. We even have clothes, shoes and accessories for adults as well as household items, like pots, pans and dishes. Basically what someone would need to start over. We also have a ton of referrals on hand to agencies and individuals who can help support clients in areas we don’t specialize in. So if we have someone come in who really needs a particular service, we do everything we can to help them.

 Valerie Phillips, left, and daughter Rachel Pruneau, right

Valerie Phillips, left, and daughter Rachel Pruneau, right

How were you able to rebuild your life amidst all of the challenges you went through?

I guess I’m just a strong person [laughs]. If you’re going to make a change, it has to be something you’re willing to do for yourself, which ensures you’ll actually do what it takes to move forward. And being willing to forgive yourself and others who have harmed you, so you can move on. Rachel’s dad, for example, wasn’t in her life at all until the past couple of years. He has made some real changes in his own life. He grew up in an abusive family himself and regrets what he did. Funny enough, he’s actually come out here to help us out with a few things: we had a broken window in the building here, and he came over and fixed it for us. Today I pray that his temper has come around. But I can no longer hold a grudge; that just hurts me.

I do think that people can change, if they really want to. But you can’t make them.

Monica’s Story: A Former Helping Hand Me Downs Mom Who Now Runs The Pagedale Branch

  Monica Wade (right)

Monica Wade (right)

If you head to our Pagedale office on Page Avenue, you’ll be greeted by manager Monica Wade, whose wide smile often belies the depth of her work handling the day-to-day operations of the location.

No two days are ever the same: one moment Wade may be prepping intake for a new mother, providing her with newborn clothes and supplies, or gathering referral materials for families looking for a home or work. Born and raised in the University City neighborhood of St. Louis, Wade originally went through Helping Hand Me Downs’ program herself when pregnant with her third child three years ago, and returned as a volunteer before we asked her to come aboard with us full-time.

Keep reading to learn more about how Monica persevered in the face of much adversity, and how she has arrived at success and fulfillment.

  Pagedale Office

Pagedale Office

How did you originally hear about Helping Hand Me Downs and get involved with the program?

I originally came to Helping Hand Me Downs in 2015, after my sister told me about it. I was pregnant with my third baby at the time and really needed some newborn items. I met Stephanie [Williamson, founder of Helping Hand Me Downs] when I came to pick up some items, and she encouraged me to come back as a volunteer. After I had my baby, a girl, I came back every week to volunteer like clockwork. Eventually she offered me a job running the Pagedale branch, and at first I was reluctant. I’d never been in a management position before, and wasn’t sure how safe the area was. But she kept reassuring me and eventually I decided to to it. I’m so happy that I did; I love it.  

What does your day-to-day look like here?

Usually I begin with client intake—though I typically don’t call them “clients.” I just call them, “my moms.” Some dads come in, but it’s mostly moms. I give out the clothes and supplies, and if we don’t have something they need I do call-arounds to see if we can find it. If they’re homeless or looking for a job, I refer them to a few different agencies we work with to see if we can help that way. Some of them are worried they can’t get jobs without a degree or high school diploma, and we refer them to GoodWill, which has a high school diploma program. A lot of people also come in just looking for food, so I hand out fliers with information about local food pantries, or just take them to the cafe next door for something to eat. Truly, no day is ever the same.

Did you have support along the way on your journey to parenthood and nonprofit work?

I have received a lot of unexpected blessings along the way. I still do. But I came up poor, with very little. I never met my dad, and I have six siblings—my mom raised us on her own. Sometimes we had no food in the refrigerator or gas in the car. But even so, I have to hand it to her: we all turned out well. I did lose a brother to gun violence a few years ago, which has been incredibly difficult.

  Monica at Pagedale Office

Monica at Pagedale Office

I can’t imagine. I’m so sorry for your loss. If I may ask—I’m not wording this the right way, but how do you ever, I guess, move through something that?

You can’t. You go on, but you really can’t. It’s like—you’re just stuck. And it’s a really terrible, common thing in St. Louis: most people know someone or have a family member who’s been lost to gun violence. The violence is just crazy. So I help people, and I love it. That’s what I do.

Thank you for your incredible honesty and vulnerability. And it sounds like you’re creating something different for children than what you had growing up.

I do go above and beyond for my daughters, because I don’t want them to ever be without. So whatever I have to do, I do it. I figure it out the best way I can. I was 26 when I had my first, and she’s now 16. I also have a 13-year-old and a three-year-old.

You have highs and lows. Growing up, I had so many things I wanted to do. I needed someone to push me. I remember I wanted to be a policewoman, then a detective, then an archaeologist. I used to dig for hours in this local creek. I loved playing in it; I’d get all these different rocks and fossils. I always said I was going to do that. I didn’t go to college, so I’ve gotta make sure my kids go. I used to work at an assisted living home as a resident assistant, and I’ve thought about going back to school to become a Licensed Practical Nurse. I have to show my kids that I’ve done something. That’s always in the back of my mind.

Helping Hand Me Downs grew in response to the realization that the distribution of resources is not equal or fair. St. Louis is obviously also very racially and socioeconomically segregated. Do you see the impact of that segregation and disparity in your work?

I do. We have a few white families who come in for help, but it is mostly the black community. A lot of them don’t have high school diplomas, or they’re not wearing shoes, and I wonder, “Who’s helping them?” We get a lot of homeless people of all ages who come in, men and women. Most of them just don’t know about things like needing a proper car seat, or the importance of making sure your baby sleeps in a crib, not with you in bed. They don’t have a clue, which makes me think, “Who’s teaching them?”

Have you had women come in with stories that have really moved or pained you?

There have been several. One woman came in recently who needed basics like body wash and socks for her daughter. Her social worker was supposed to pick it up from us and he didn’t, so she came in herself to get it. I gave her everything she needed, and as we were getting it ready she just broke down and started crying. She told me she had an abusive boyfriend who beat her. He’d steal her car and drop her off at random places. She had her daughter with her, so I took them to the cafe next door and got them some food. I also gave her Mary’s number coaching. That really hurt my heart to see. But I’ve found that as much as I want to, I can’t do it all.

But on the other hand, we have so many moms who come back and are so appreciative. That makes my day. They thank you in a really genuine way, or bring their kids in and hang out on the couch while they play. I love that.

An Interview With Our Founder and Executive Director, Stephanie Williamson

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Stephanie Williamson started Helping Hand Me Downs out of her home in 2011—and she still remembers the painstaking process of washing tiny onesies and other pieces of newborn clothing in her basement, all of which had been donated or picked up from the local Goodwill outlet. Her living room had exploded with donations, and soon enough the organization had grown enough that it became clear she needed to open her first brick-and-mortar location.

Now, seven years later, the nonprofit is a thriving mainstay in St. Louis. With three locations in University City, Soulard and Pagedale, the nonprofit provides families in need with vital newborn baby supplies, like clothing, bottles, carseats, blankets, strollers and more, as well as clothing, backpacks, shoes and coats for children of all ages. Last year they served over 4,000 children, redistributed over 200,000 donated items, and 98% of funding went straight to programming. The nonprofit’s program offerings grew alongside the need, and now Williamson and her team also work with social workers to help families find housing and employment.

Williamson herself is the ultimate mom: she has two biological daughters (Sydney and Sophie, ages 19 and 16, as well as two adopted children, Marcus and Olivia, ages 8 and 5. She lives with her husband in University City, and her journey of how everything came together is truly fascinating. Keep reading to learn more.

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What was the catalyst that led you to start Helping Hand Me Downs?

At the time I had two biological children, but my husband and I also decided to become foster parents. I had spent years in the business world at that point, but that really wasn’t where my heart was. I knew I wanted to do something that served the community, so I started interviewing social workers—around 40 total—whose clients were new moms, and asked what they needed most. Overwhelmingly, it was simple things like car seats, clothes, bottles, strollers—the basics. That's where the idea really started. I thought there were programs already in place that helped new moms with basic newborn supplies, but since most of them are government-funded, there are so many stipulations. So there really was a gap that needed to be filled by what we do.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in getting this initiative off the ground?

Definitely funding. The way the nonprofit world often works, you need a financial track record behind you in order to receive funding. We got so fortunate in that first year: our space was donated to us, so I paid no rent or utilities, and we received so many donations. We’d also shop at Goodwill, wash all the clothing in my basement and redistribute it. On October 14 of this year we’ll celebrate seven years since we started. Last year we served around 4,000 children, and for each child we provide around 50 items or more. So last year alone we had around 200,000 items donated to us that were reallocated. It’s been amazing to see how it’s grown.

You might think getting the word out about what we do would have been a challenge, but it was actually much easier than we thought. The social workers I’d been speaking with could not wait to start referring their clients to us as soon as we were up and running. The only qualification we require is that the family be the client of a social worker or another like-minded organization. Also, I hate paperwork and I don’t think it’s fair to ask women who are in crisis to present it. We don’t want to deny services to anyone who needs them, ever.

Diverging a bit into your personal journey, how did you decide this was the area in which you wanted to serve the community?

I love children. I would have more if my husband would allow it [laughs]. Not everyone feels that they can love children who didn’t grow inside them as their own, but that was just never the case for me. First we decided to become foster parents, but we became “foster failures” because we couldn’t let them leave once they came into our care. That’s how we originally connected with our son, Marcus.

He came to us when he was a baby, and it was originally intended that he’d stay with us for a month while caseworkers explored his grandmother as a possible guardian. They ultimately found that she wasn’t a suitable guardian, but even so, there were about five days where we weren’t sure if we’d be able to keep Marcus. And I remember thinking that if God allowed us to raise him as our own, I’d never ask for anything else.

If you don’t mind me asking, what is Marcus’ story? How did he come into foster care?

Many of the stories of how children end up in foster care are painful and difficult, which is very much what happened to Marcus. His mother was addicted to heroin—she delivered him at St. Anthony’s Hospital, left and never came back. She also gave birth to Olivia—our daughter, whom we also adopted—a few years later. Between Marcus and Olivia, she contracted Hepatitis C from a contaminated needle, and they needed to draw blood from Olivia when she was born to make sure she didn’t also have it. To do the test properly they need to draw quite a bit of blood, and she was just screaming in pain. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to watch.

A year ago, their birth mother died. And today, what I feel for her and their father more than anything is sorrow. No mother would knowingly leave her child at a hospital like that. It was so clear that she was suffering from an illness. Their father was also a star athlete, and there are times when I watch Marcus excel in sports, or Olivia rocking it in soccer, scoring goals like crazy on all the boys. It cracks me up. And I’m so sad that their biological parents don’t get to experience that—all the joy they bring to our lives.

We’ve never shied away from talking about adoption with them. We keep the outfit Marcus was wearing when he was officially adopted, and he asked if he could bring it to school for show and tell. I tell them that while they both grew in another woman’s stomach, they grew in my heart and God meant for us to be together. I’m sure they’ll have more in-depth questions when they get older, but right now they’re very settled and comfortable.

You’ve mentioned that your services are most needed in communities of color. Living in St. Louis in particular, which has become an international epicenter of discussions around 21st-century race relations, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask how you’ve approached that element of your work.

I find much of that tension can be diffused with lightheartedness, humor and respect. The moms we work with are so used to not being believed, turned down or treated like a number. Our organization is a strong, diverse community where everyone is treated with respect, no matter their background, and the moms see that pretty quickly. This kind of work also brings together families of all backgrounds and races, and you get to see them evolve. One of our moms, for example, went through our program and now runs the Pagedale office. It’s incredible to see their growth.

As cheesy as it sounds, what we ultimately try to do is love people wherever they are on their journey, connect with them and care. People know when you care and when you don’t.

It seems like you’ve also really taken the art of empowering your clients to heart, made evident by the fact that parents who have been through the program often return to Helping Hand Me Downs as volunteers and help other parents. You also help them secure jobs and housing. How did those pieces of your mission grow?

When moms would come in for their intake, we’d ask them things like, “Are you at risk of becoming homeless in the next 90 days?” And so often they’d say “Yes,” or tell us it was a real possibility. The more we dug into their respective situations, the more we found things that were really unfair: moms who had their babies in the NICU for weeks, which is not cheap, and they’d have to miss work or their landlords wouldn’t work with them. So we help them find stable housing and employment with reputable companies. It’s been an amazing ride, and I look forward to growing our offerings even more. 

AN EVENING TO REMEMBER: WIN TICKETS TO OUR GALA SEPTEMBER 29!

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Upon entry below, two winners will each win a pair of tickets ($200 in value) to our upcoming gala at the The Crown Room in Ballpark Village in Downtown St. Louis on September 29! Scroll to the bottom of this post to enter the Rafflecopter contest, or keep reading to learn more about Helping Hand Me Downs and all the details you have to look forward to as this amazing event draws nearer. You can also purchase tickets here.

When you hear “gala” or “fundraising event,” you might immediately think of an evening where ticket prices soar upwards of $500 and guests must endure a lengthy presentation from the organization’s leadership—but let us stop you right there. For starters, we have firsthand knowledge that our founder Stephanie Williamson (with four children in tow) has no time for anything of the sort, and that her primary goal is for all in attendance to enjoy food, drink, music and entertainment in celebration of a worthwhile cause. “It really is a super fun night. And I’m not standing up and boring everyone with a begging for money speech, or anything like that,” she says, laughing.

Secondly, tickets start at $100, which include cocktails, heavy hors d'oeuvre, access to our silent auction and music from renowned St. Louis-based DJ Mike Gow (named Best Club DJ by the Riverfront Times), who has played high-end venues in the city for years to audience acclaim. Gow’s set will continue on all night long, with contemporary musical stylings that are sure to get you out of your seat and up on the dance floor.

You’ll also enjoy fresh culinary creativity from bartender Tony Saputo of the Moroccan-inspired restaurant The Benevolent King in Maplewood, yet another brainchild of St. Louis’ prolific chef/entrepreneur, Ben Poremba. Saputo even developed a specialty cocktail to commemorate the evening, which we’re calling “The French 75ish.”

Bump it up to VIP status for $150, which includes a reserved tabletop plus cigars and champagne, so you can really channel your inner Marlon Brando. It’s the perfect way to round out the summer with a last hurrah before fall settles in—so come decked out in your favorite old Hollywood glam, have a drink and let loose with us!

We first embarked on the adventure of throwing a gala last year, centered around celebrating the six years we’d been serving the St. Louis community and the extraordinary families we have had the absolute privilege of meeting along the way. We gathered together to honor our steadfast volunteers, moms, community partners and donors who gave in-kind gifts. And this year, it’s all about having fun.

[Image courtesy of Ash Edmonds]

GIVEAWAY

Enter here for your chance to win two tickets to this year’s Helping Hand Me Downs Gala on September 29. The entry period will close on September 27, and two winners will be chosen on September 28. We’ll contact winners by email on September 28. Be sure to bring a photo ID and tickets can be picked up the day of the event at check-in. Good luck!