Story and photos by Tracy Record and Patrick Sand
West Seattle Blog co-publishers
Emcee/auctioneer Ian Lindsay confessed to the crowd at the start that he was onstage even as the birth of his first child was imminent – in Los Angeles. His wife wasn’t in labor yet, he clarified. But if he got a text, he said, he’d wrap up as fast as he could and go catch a plane. The event ran a bit over, and at 4:26 pm, though labor hadn’t yet commenced, Woodland ordered Lindsay offstage to go catch his flight, leaving in less than an hour. (Good thing the venue, the Seattle Airport Hilton Conference Center, is across the street from the airport.)
Some little ones are always in attendance. But this year’s CommuniTea chairs, King County Executive Dow Constantine and wife Shirley Carlson, all but apologized for not bringing their 2-year-old daughter Sabrina.
They took to the stage to talk about the importance of meeting basic needs – something every parent knows, acutely – and how WS Baby helps families in need, “going beyond the basic stuff, too.”
Executive director Nancy Woodland echoed that, as she thanked the 600-plus in attendance for being “here to have tea with me again this year.”
Here’s our video of everything she told them:
Woodland thanked supporters for helping her organization get items to “the families who need them most,” and explained that case managers and others know “who need them most … Something like a diaper has an immediate impact on your day today. Imagine if you had to call your boss and say you couldn’t come in to work today because you got to day care and you didn’t have enough diapers to drop off your baby … That happens.” But it’s not just the immediate needs that are met – they help with the long term too, including helping people become “more confident and effective parents.”
Woodland told the story of a “sobbing woman standing alongside a very busy road” recently. Two school-bus drivers saw her, holding her toddler in her arms. “With great compassion, they stopped the school bus and picked her up. … Her situation was dire but it wasn’t unique.” She had fled a dangerous situation the night before – and been left stranded with very little. She spent the night wandering around a 24-hour store to keep out of the cold. Then, the school-bus drivers found her and took her to WS Baby. “I have to be honest, we didn’t know what to do …” because they don’t routinely deal with walk-ins. The toddler, in a soaked diaper, fell asleep in Woodland’s arms – “an act of trust … (the mother) had nothing left to try to solve the problem she was in.” But WS Baby – which doesn’t usually deal with walk-ins – did what they could to help.
Their expertise is in getting items to families through a variety of agencies and organizations. This year, in fact, Woodland said, they have doubled the number of cribs and car seats they’ve been providing. But that still is short of fulfilling the need: “We gave out nearly 1,000 car seats, less than half the demand, and (about) 400 cribs, but that was one-third of the demand.”
Last week, though, they got word from a car-seat company that is ready to partner with WS Baby and will give them “thousands of car seats. … It took me a year and a half to convince them that this was a good idea … these are the ones that are returned to a store,” and then by law cannot be resold. WS Baby has the resources to make sure the returned seats are safe. At least 50 more families will get car seats each month as a result. Woodland said that WS Baby also is getting equipment to help many more families provide safe sleeping conditions for their babies via the Safe Z’s Initiative.
And, she announced, “WestSide Baby is starting to partner with local government – working to eliminate state sales tax on diapers – and talking to Seattle city officials about subsidizing diapers.” And she talked about Best Starts for Kids, the King County ballot measure that Executive Constantine sent to voters, who approved it last year.
Finally, she said it was time to focus on gratitude – including providing a “gratitude journal” for everyone in attendance – so she voiced gratitude for WS Baby’s 100-plus community-partner organizations/agencies, plus “every donor in this room,” and WS Baby’s staff and Board of Directors.
Riffing on the theme of the event – a Maasai greeting, “And how are the children?”, to be answered “The children are well” – Woodland concluded, “I hope that we will be able to say that after today, the children are just a little more well.”
She introduced spotlight speaker Jessica Bartholow from the Western Center on Law and Poverty, who has for decades advocated professionally and personally “about what it means for a child to grow up in poverty.”
Bartholow began by saying it’s important to change the ways in which “our country is leaving children behind” and told her personal story of poverty starting at age 8.
She spoke of “the first time she really felt the weight” of poverty in her life. Her father was a Vietnam Veteran with untreated PTSD; there was violence in her household, “frequent disruption of our housing status” – moving and changing schools every year – and “we became poor like many people do in America … when something happens.” Her sister was hurt, “several times,” falling and breaking bones. The second time it happened, her family had just bought a house, and her mother had opened her own bookkeeping business, which she lost because her daughter had to spend a month in the hospital. They lost the house, and went into debt, and moved into an apartment. A debt collector showed up one day and told Jessica to call her mom “and tell her I’m here.”
Being poor was dangerous, she said. Her family moved far from the Sacramento area, where they had been before that, to Lake Tahoe, where it snowed, and they couldn’t afford boots, or weather-appropriate clothes. “And one day, my dad was working far away, laying pipe … my mother worked at a casino … and one day my mother didn’t come home.” The family had been living off whatever they could make of Bisquick mix for two weeks at that point. “My sister and I stayed up, waited for her to come, there wasn’t food… one day she came back, about 1 o’clock in the morning. We were confused. Where had she been? She walked in the door with two heaping bags of French fries from McDonald’s. … The night remained a mystery to me for many years.” She never asked, but by the time she felt ready to ask, “my mom was gone … I realized later what had happened … she didn’t come home because it was expensive to drive a car … too costly to come get us and wait outside McDonald’s for when they threw out the leftover French fries.”
She also talked of an act of kindness during a family party thrown by the casino that employed her mom, a man who worked for the casino noticing that Jessica was on the sidelines, alone, crying, and offering to partner with her for the games during the event – which they improbably, in her view, won. She said that she tells that story because many people don’t understand what it’s like to be poor – “fist fights over food, in your house,” among other things. 16 percent of the U.S. population knows this all too well, she said. But – “even when things are bad, even when the help you’re given looks like it’s not going to work, things can come together.”
She told the group that their help with diapers and items is “the kind of community you’re building,” to help people like the impoverished child she was, and so many more. She is on the Diaper Bank’s national board with Woodland, and reminded attendees that while babies don’t realize they are poor, their bodies know the “toxic stress of unmet needs,” hungry, homeless, diaperless – that stress does affect their brains, and their “ability to cope.”
Bartholow suggested that what’s needed to climb out of poverty – “nobody gets lifted out of poverty, they climb and kick and scratch their way out” – is to be sure those basic needs are met in the very earliest years, to avoid “toxic stress.” And – she challenged everyone in the room – ask why so many children are in deep poverty? What can we do about that? Also: “Keep our babies healthy … if they have an injury, we need to have health care to take care of that.” Bartholow said her sister did not get out of poverty, due mostly to untreated medical conditions; including the broken arm, which, Bartholow said, had two surgeries, but “needed three” and became “useless. … She has lived her adult life in pain.”
And, she declared, “We need to give ourselves as Americans the hope, the goal, of ending childhood poverty and deep poverty.” 5,400 children live in deep poverty – at or below half the level considered poverty – in King County, she said in closing: “Make King County the first to end childhood deep poverty.”
The CommuniTea always showcases a video featuring WestSide Baby clients and partners, and the one watched today spotlighted help for young moms, who need care for themselves in order to help them care for the new life that is suddenly in their hands, as well as help for refugee families, who had to flee and leave everything behind.
The latter need – which is increasing – was addressed onstage too, by the refugee and asylum services director from Lutheran Community Services, Beth Farmer: “We are in an unprecedented refugee crisis in the world today … when people are displaced, they cross deserts, jungles, oceans to find safety … If they find a refugee camp, the average amount of time they will spend there is 17 years … it is a very very difficult existence. Our organization helps the lucky few who are able to resettle in the United States … when they arrive here they arrive with little more than the clothes on their back,” and that’s where WestSide Baby steps in to help, with clothes, with diapers … for children “who have seen more than they should see,” WS Baby gives them toys, so they can “recapture that childhood joy that they had.”
Farmer also spoke of helping asylum-seekers who must leave their countries because of circumstances such as political persecution. A woman who had spent six months in the detention center in Tacoma was released because she was eight months pregnant. “You are literally released onto the docks of Tacoma, with nothing.” This woman had had no prenatal care, had no medical insurance, no housing, food, transportation. “The one thing we never had to worry about was her baby … we knew it would have diapers, a warm blanket, a crib, warm clothing … we knew that deep in our hearts because we get to partner with WestSide Baby.” She added, the U.S. has always been a beacon of hope … but right now in this current climate, so many of our families feel very afraid and feel like America does not want them here. “When they get that bag from WestSide Baby, it’s like a big bag of welcome. It says not only are you welcome, we are going to invest in your children … by giving to WestSide Baby you become a partner in our clients’ stories as well.”
A round of card-raising for donations followed, as well as an invitation to join the Giving Circle, whose members commit to giving $500 a year for at least three years. And in a separate round of card-waving, money was raised for the Safe Z’s initiative to get more babies into safe sleeping conditions – a $347 gift was requested, and a match was offered for all such gifts up to $20,000. (That was 57 1/2 $347 donations, Lindsay noted – before leaving for his flight – later announcing that “about 90” gifts came in at that level.)
The CommuniTea always includes moments of levity – each table gets a loaner “selfie stick” so photos can be taken for social media:
And there are special drawings – the Golden Ticket winner, for prizes donated by Alaska Airlines, and the opening of the “Baby Cakes” – a limited number of cupcakes blown by Avalon GlassWorks, sold for $50, with one containing a jeweled pendant by Wyatt’s Jewelers (WSB sponsor), whose proprietors Kirk Keppler and Joni Keppler were at the CommuniTea:
Other WSB sponsors on the CommuniTea sponsor roster included Ventana Construction, whose co-proprietor Anne Higuera has long been involved with WS Baby:
The West Seattle and Fauntleroy YMCA sponsored, too, and brought unique china for the table they hosted:
At the start of the program, the Donna Pierce Service Awards were presented; they are named after WS Baby’s founder, with recipients including Banner Bank (whose reps are in the photo above, helping with today’s totaling) and Diane Redenbaugh, who has volunteered more than 1,500 hours for WS Baby. You can volunteer, by the way – here’s how.
While volunteer time is priceless, dollars buy the items needed to fulfill the needs mentioned so often during the CommuniTea … and as of this writing, Woodland tells us that the tally from today is $300,000 “and counting.” They of course gratefully accept donations at any time – here’s a link.
MONDAY NIGHT UPDATE: With additional tallying, WS Baby’s CommuniTea proceeds have surpassed this year’s $330,000 goal.