It’s a part of the volunteer narrative we don’t often read about: the sinking feeling that “the problem” will still be there, much bigger than a group of people rallying to help on any given day.
Genevieve Piturro, a former television executive, often felt that way after leaving the homeless shelter she spent time at once a week. One day, she decided to do something about it—something bigger.
Piturro had been volunteering once a week reading to children at the shelter before they went to bed. When she finished, they would go to sleep with their clothes on, which were often dirty, sometimes covered in blood from when the police brought them in.
“They were alone and frightened, and given nothing but food,” she recalls. “As I turned to leave one night, a little girl in a Chicago shelter whispered in my ear, ‘Please, don’t forget me.’ People come in and out of their lives, and they’re forgotten.”
Finding a way to directly help alleviate the number of children in homeless and emergency shelters, group homes, and the foster care system was not a problem that she or an entire army of people could tackle—but might be possible to make life a little more comfortable for them.
So, she quit her job and founded The Pajama Program, a nonprofit that brings new books and new pajamas to children in need across the U.S.
For these kids, a book and some pajamas symbolize hope and safety, the notion that someone out there cares about them.
She began asking people to donate pajamas and books for her to bring into the shelters, even requesting them as birthday and Christmas gifts for herself.
Soon, she decided to expand her efforts and make it her mission to bring “One Million Good Nights” to children across the country. Sixteen years later, she has provided children in 32 states with over 2 million new pajamas and books through her non-profit organization, the Pajama Program.
“This is the first stop for children before they’re placed in foster care, and having warm beautiful pajamas makes their transition a little bit less traumatic,” said Ronald E. Richter, Commissioner of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, which oversees the foster care system in NYC.
“It’s hard to say whether the fear goes away when the volunteers are here, but, in those moments, it helps them know that there are caring people out there. Having another adult comfort them makes them feel as though they’re okay.”
Children from the NYCACS and other group homes and shelters are often brought to the Pajama Program’s Reading Center in New York City. It’s decorated with familiar Disney and Sesame Street characters and overflowing with books for the children to take home.
The reading parties that take place here offer kids the chance to buddy up with an adult volunteer for an hour to read and enjoy a snack, letting them know that somebody cares enough to spend time with them because they choose to, not because they have to.
Right now, one of the biggest issues the program faces is getting donations for the older kids, who need pajamas in adult sizes.
At ages 4-7, kids are still resilient and full of hope, but when the Pajama Program volunteers visit NYCACS, they find that teenagers often stay by themselves in the corner, feeling that the fuss is for the little kids and knowing that, tomorrow, everything will go back to the way it was.
“People forget about the bigger kids. When they’re 10 or 11, they know the score: adoption won’t happen, and they’d be lucky to find a foster family,” Piturro explained.
“They’re so lonely and defeated, and when a box arrives at a shelter and it’s only filled with stuff for the little kids, that’s a double heartbreak for them. We beg for sizes 12, 14 in kids, and adult small and medium for teenagers so they’re remembered, too.”
Around the holidays, for example, 13-year-olds are just as eager to be read a picture book about Christmas, and then another, and another, as their tinier counter parts are.
Because kids come into the system all year long, says Piturro, the wait list “has gotten out of control.” It’s important that they are able to deliver all year long, as the demand, along with the childhood poverty rate, is growing.
“Children are losing hope, and we have to step up to the plate. We always need more pajamas, especially because the kids who are traumatized are wetting and soiling themselves, not even just the little ones, but teenagers, too,” said Piturro. “They’re afraid, there’s a lot of anxiety. They’re so nervous about being in a new place, where they’re going to be, what’s happening.”
Ana Fraioli, the Program’s New York City Chapter President, said that the kids seem truly happy while it’s underway.
“For a couple of hours, they stop wondering where they’re going, where their mom is, saying, ‘I wonder if mommy forgot about me,’” she said “Whenever we spend time with these children, we try to get them to interact with us so they don’t think about it. Their lives are very tough.”
For Piturro, her staff, and the Pajama Program’s thousands of volunteers, the most rewarding part of the job is seeing the surprise in a child’s eyes when someone is giving them something new of their very own to keep.
“They recognize love in the form of footie pajamas and princess nightgowns,” said Piturro. “Those few moments we share when we hand over our package is worth all the sleepless nights worrying, ‘Are we really making a difference?’ Yes, I have to believe we are.
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