Most of the pleas for help come from the Washington region, but some arrive from as far as Texas and California.
Each one is brief, capturing in just a paragraph a child’s situation and needs.
Child is turning 5 and mom would like him to have a birthday party. Mom works at McDonald’s and is saving money to move out of the shelter with her three children so she cannot afford cake/cupcakes, decorations and toys.
Thirteen year old needs a music stand to hold sheet music while practicing viola. She has been sexually assaulted by her father since she was six. Since reporting the abuse, she has been having anxiety attacks and PTSD symptoms. She has recently started playing the viola and it helps takes her to a place of peace. Having a music stand at her home will make it easier to practice and learn new music.
Seventeen year old female needs cafeteria charge paid for or she will not be allowed to participate in senior events or walk in graduation. Her mother was furloughed during the government shut down and cannot afford to pay.
When a natural disaster takes everything from a family, we hear about it. When a fire destroys a building, photos of those flames pull us in enough to wonder what was lost.
The stories that come in to Alice’s Kids, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization, are not like that. They are not big, and often they are not newsworthy. They are the stuff of quiet happenings and unseen heartbreak, occurring to children around us, without us knowing.
They are what child poverty looks like on a micro, just-trying-to-get-through-the-day level.
When I was in college, a professor asked us to think about what it meant to be wealthy. He then instructed us to write our definitions on slips of paper and pass them to him. When he started to read them aloud, I hoped he would skip over mine because I had not written anything profound. I had written the first thing that popped into my head.
But when he came to my answer, he didn’t pass over it. He paused on it and had the class discuss it. I had written, “My mom used to say, ‘You’re wealthy if you can afford to buy a burger when you want it.’ ”
I told you it wasn’t profound. But the point was this: Wealth allows for whims. When you are poor, you have so few choices about what you wear, what you do and what you eat.
To see that, we just have to look at the requests that Alice’s Kids receives for immediate financial help. Over the past few days, I have read through dozens of them. They are heartbreaking, but they are more than that, too. They are revealing. They show what it takes sometimes to help some children compete in school and participate in other activities, despite their economic circumstances, and at times it isn’t much.
Among the requests are prom fees, soccer cleats, hygiene products, uniforms that fit, a new pair of glasses.
Fourteen year old male needs formal clothing. The student is performing a poem at a Gala this weekend and family cannot afford the cost for dress pants, dress shirt, belt and shoes.
Eleven year old female needs to pay for band trip to Williamsburg in May. The cost of the trip is $200 and is only for students with a “C” or higher in classes and no unexcused absences. Her family cannot afford the full cost because the family is low-income and categorized as homeless.
Six year old female needs uniforms, undergarments and shoes. She currently wears literally the same dirty clothing daily. She often comes to school with no undergarments or socks on. Her shoes are either a couple sizes [too] small or [too] big. She absolutely loves school.
Ron Fitzsimmons, the executive director of Alice’s Kids, said he and his sister, Laura Fitzsimmons Peters, came up with the idea for the organization eight years ago based on their own childhood experiences.
When they were growing up in West Islip, N.Y., in the 1960s, their father left and their mother had to raise them on her own. She went on welfare, Fitzsimmons said, but most of their monthly check went to rent and food. That left the children wearing shoes with holes in them and sitting on the bleachers during gym class because they could not afford to buy the right clothes.
“It was very humiliating,” the 69-year-old recalled. “One year I missed 67 days of school because I just didn’t want to go to school.”
To make extra money, their mother, Alice, occasionally cleaned houses. When she did, Fitzsimmons said, she would come home and take her children to buy something special.
It was those moments, he said, that led him and his sister to say, “Maybe we can play Alice and help other kids.”
The organization, whose goal is “to help raise the self-esteem of a child in need,” spent about $27,000 last year to help 377 children in the D.C. metro area. Last month, the organization received a record number of requests, and spent more than $8,600 on 116 children.
Fitzsimmons said most of the money is from individual donations, but some also comes from grants and corporations. Actor Patton Oswalt donated $5,000 a few years ago.
The organization, which offers short-term financial help to school-age children, does not take requests from families. It relies on referrals from a network of teachers, counselors and social workers, people who know best which children are most in need. I learned about it when the group reached out to help a young Maryland man I wrote about whose shoes were stolen.
Fitzsimmons said that because the organization doesn’t want children to feel as though they are receiving charity, it usually sends gift certificates to adults who can take them shopping and get the credit for giving them that needed gift.
“We’re not going to solve all the pains of all the children,” he said. “But we just want to be part of the answer at least.”
On Thursday, Fitzsimmons was sitting at his computer when he saw a request for a $75 Target gift card for a teenage girl. He approved it immediately.
It read: “The family has been experiencing a loss from a loved one. The [17-year-old] student who was living with her mom came home and found her mom unexpectedly dead. It has been very devastating for her. At this point she is in the need of clothes to attend the funeral services and also with food.”