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 she 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 St. Louis’ University City, Monica 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 adversity, and how she has achieved success and fulfillment.
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.
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.