Stephanie Williamson started Helping Hand Me Downs out of her home in 2011, and still remembers the painstaking process of washing tiny onesies in her basement. Her living room exploded with donations, and it soon became clear that a brick-and-mortar location was the next step.
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 supplies to care for their children, including: clothing, bottles, carseats, blankets, strollers, cribs, backpacks, shoes, coats and more. 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.
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.