Westside Baby: Providing Essential Items to Families in Need

I sat down to tea with Jolyn Mason, Development Director of Westside Baby, a nonprofit organization that gathers used items, such as clothing, bedding, toys, and equipment for children and babies, and distributes them to social services assisting low-income families in South King County.

Jolyn is a very down-to-earth and approachable person. I could tell she was deeply moved by the issues faced by many low-income families.

IP: Tell me about Westside Baby and how it works.

JM: Westside Baby serves all of West Seattle and South King County. We have quite a comprehensive age range: infant to size 12. We are basically a clearinghouse for donations from DSHS, health clinics, food banks, and individuals. We don’t work directly with the clients, but rather, the social workers, caseworkers, and other staff from organizations who come to sort through our items. We make it easier for these providers to find the things they need for their clients quickly.

Our previous space was cramped and made it hard to find and sort items.

Before the move. Courtesy Jolyn Mason

We recently moved to a great, large space in White Center that is much more conducive to sorting and giving away items.

After the move. Courtesy Jolyn Mason

We distributed $ 1.4 million worth of items in 2010.

IP: What are some of the issues low-income families face?

 JM: Diapers are expensive and are not covered by food stamps. The intention of food stamps is good but people also really need diapers. Usually day care centers require a days’ supply of diapers and many parents can’t afford that.  So, an inability to get diapers means an inability for a parent to go to work and support their families.

Some quick facts about diapers:

  • Newborns use 12 diapers per day; toddlers use about 8. This is an average of 65-70 diapers per week—about 20 pounds!*
  • The average baby uses 9,000 disposables from birth to potty training, costing the average parent around $3,000 or close to $100 a month!*
  • Cost of one diaper:  23-35 cents, sometimes even 60 cents, depending on where they are bought. If people don’t have transportation, they may be forced to go to a nearby 7-11 or neighborhood store, which tend to be more expensive than a larger grocery store.
  • 600,000 diapers were given this year through Westside Baby.
  • Westside Baby provides a week’s supply of diapers.  This translates to approximately 40 diapers per child.

*Additional facts kindly provided by Punkernoodle Baby, a Seattle diaper shop which provides cloth alternatives.

IP: Who makes up the backbone of Westside Baby?

 JM: Our volunteers make a huge difference.  Without them, we wouldn’t be here. We have 350 volunteers a year and six staff. We have a core group of twenty volunteers who keep things running on a regular basis.

Volunteers sorting through clothes. Courtesy Jolyn Mason

There’s this whole behind the scenes effort that’s going on to make the operation run smoothly, so that agencies can get the things they need for their clients.

For example, one volunteer puts together a layette kit worth $500, which is given by caseworkers to new parents.  It contains teething implements, diapers, onesies, sleepers, blankets, hats, outfits, socks, etc. This volunteer puts an impressive effort into making sure the layette kits contain the right things and the right amounts. Clothes are even color-coordinated for girls and boys.

Other volunteers do things like:

  • Make sure snaps, buttons, and zippers work
  • Sew holes and tears in clothing
  • Wash clothing in the laundry area set aside specifically for this purpose
  • Sort items in a huge sorting area in a warehouse and filling orders for our provider partners
  • Make sure toys are in working order
  • Serve on boards and committees
  • Special projects and events

IP: What are some challenges faced by Westside Baby?

JM: It’s difficult when we can’t fulfill a need. For example, one year there was a huge demand for winter coats and we simply did not have enough.  We put a call out on our Facebook page for coats and people brought in a bunch. Treehouse saw our message and brought over some coats they had received from a donor.  That was a generous gesture. And one individual donor ordered 100 coats for our organization!

Luckily, we have some great partnerships. Baby Boutique is a program of Wellspring Family Services that provides items to homeless people or people in transitional housing. However, once the individual has a home (or has been in housing for more than six months), s/he can no longer use the services provided by Baby Boutique.  So Westside Baby works with Wellspring case workers to fill that gap and help those people who are no longer homeless get the things they need.

Another challenge is that social workers and other staff are limited by how far they can drive to Westside Baby to pick up items. Westside Baby serves such a large area in South King County, and many staff simply can’t get to our warehouse. A 30-45 minute drive is usually the maximum they can do and they often must go during lunch break.

IP: What successes are you most proud of?

JM: The Re-Ride car seat recycling program.  Our partner, Total Reclaim, recycles the stripped down seats for us for free – we have a suggested $5 donation to drop off the seats to help cover our program costs. Volunteers just have to strip the car seat down, take straps off, and wash them.

Re-Ride event. Courtesy Jolyn Mason

During a typical car seat event, we might collect up to 600 seats.  Of those seats, about 100 are able to be re-used. The Re-Ride program gets unsafe seats off the street, puts safe seats into the hands of families who need them and allows Westside Baby to provide more seats than our purchasing budget would typically allow.

Car seat recycling facts:

  • Goodwill does not accept car seats.
  • To re-use a car seat, it must be no more than six years old, never been in an accident and the straps have never been washed in harsh chemicals.
  • Car seats are expensive.  Many people can’t afford the three kinds a growing child needs:  infant, regular car seat for toddlers, and a booster seat for older children.  (Jolyn has seen three year olds “crammed into car seats because that’s what families have.”)

Another success I am proud of is the lunch event Westside Baby organizes annually to recognize providers from the social service agencies we work with.  It’s a great opportunity to hear their stories.  You hear of people not being able to take their newborn baby home from the hospital due to the hospital’s policy of needing a car seat before you leave. There have also been clients who are about to deliver their baby but are afraid to go to the hospital because they don’t have a car seat.

IP: If there is one thing you want to tell the world about Westside Baby, what would it be?

JM: I love the work we are doing. I don’t think any child should have to suffer because of their family’s economic situation.  As a society, we are measured by how we care for our most vulnerable members. Because they have so little, they feel a sense of ownership over the things they receive from Westside Baby. There are families who have so much stuff and don’t know what to do with them. It’s not most people’s reality, so it’s hard to think about… but these needy people live very close to us.

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