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.
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.
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.
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.