A one-woman pajama drive for D.C. foster kids yearning for comfort and a sense of caring

Petula Dvorak
Columnist December 23, 2013

When the 4-month-old foster child was placed in her arms, he was dressed in a filthy onesie that may once have been white. Kathy Jackson, who lives on Capitol Hill, threw the stained garment away and put him in a clean new pair of pajamas.

Those pajamas represented more than something for that neglected infant to sleep in. They represented warmth and love and security.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

In millions of homes all over the nation on Christmas Day, children in their pajamas will be creeping downstairs at the crack of dawn to see what Santa left under the tree. Their jammies are the symbol of their innocence, and we treasure the photographs we snap of them swaddled in their sleepwear, ripping through their gifts.

It’s not something you think about, but thousands of poor kids in the District have no idea what pajamas are. In their turbulent lives, where adults sometimes can’t be relied on for food and shelter, pajamas are an intangible luxury.

So it went with each of Jackson’s other foster boys, who came to her as 4- and 5-year-olds, with little more than the clothes on their backs. That first night, when foster kids usually have to crawl into bed in a stranger’s house with either their dirty street clothes or nothing, that first set of fresh, new jammies was Jackson’s first embrace.

“I remember my oldest was leaping around the condo, saying ‘Look at these! Look at these! I’ve never had brand new PJs!” said Jackson, now the 50-year-old mother of those three former foster boys.

I was listening to a radio ad the other day from the Pajamagram Co., which sells cute, coordinated sets of pajamas for the whole family, even for the cat and the dog. The matching pajamas arrive in monogrammed pouches. It’s a product that illustrates the terrible and growing gap between the haves and have-nots in the two Washingtons.

This is a story about pajamas. About 1,500 pairs of them.

Pajamas have always been freighted with meaning for Jackson, the managing editor of three publications. As a kid growing up in Maine, she always got a new pair of pajamas on Christmas Eve. And when she was hospitalized for months with leukemia three years ago, waiting 12 weeks for a bone marrow transplant, her mood was buoyed by the new pajamas her friends brought for her to wear.

She made a promise.

“When I was in the hospital I promised myself and God that if I survived the leukemia, I would pay it forward, in a big way,” she wrote on her Facebook page.

“As I was getting ready to celebrate my first post-transplant holidays, I began to focus on what my family holiday traditions were and how important it was for me to continue those traditions for my boys. As I thought about the tradition of a new set of pajamas for Christmas, I was reminded of the thousands, yes, thousands of kids in foster care that did not have that tradition. I wanted to change that. I also wanted to teach my boys a lesson in gratitude and remembering their roots.”

So the year after she beat leukemia, she set out to collect 200 sets of PJs for foster kids. She got 386.

The next year, she wanted 500, and collected 600.

This year, she created a Facebook page for the drive and asked a bunch of friends to donate. Schools, Girl Scout troops, real estate offices and store owners put out collection boxes and spread the word. Clicks and likes and shares on Facebook linked the nation. The friend on Capitol Hill who has a friend in Alaska saw the link and sent a set. Same with the cousin of a friend in Ohio, the friend of a cousin in Arizona. And on it went.

Boxes and boxes came in. Her boys sorted and labeled every night, marveling at the cool designs and awesome packages that would bring comfort to the many kids living the trauma they once knew. By mid-December, Jackson couldn’t see her living room floor anymore, and she put out a plea online “for an elf or an angel” to help her move 1,500 pairs of pajamas. And, magically, the elves and angels came.

Neighbors with SUVs volunteered to drive the packages to the District’s Child and Family Services Agency offices, where more volunteers sorted and stacked.

At CFSA, buzz about the pajamas filled the halls.

“I didn’t realize how important the pajamas were, but once they came, the social workers all said they made a huge impact on making children comfortable,” said Beatrice Williar, a program manager at CFSA. Kids get a care package with toiletries — toothpaste and a toothbrush — and those new pajamas, said Williar, who called Jackson “a phenomenal woman.”

All of this was done by a single, working mom with no funds to spare. Her generosity shows us the power of one woman and, with her as inspiration, the power of thousands of ordinary people.

A simple thing, pajamas. But they can mean so much to one child.

petula.dvorak@washpost.com

Twitter: @petulad

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

If you’d like to help with next year’s pajama drive — especially with logistics — e-mail Jackson at ksjaxson@
verizon.net
.

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