The handwritten letter I found in my office mailbox this week came from a D.C. woman and began with a five-word sentence: “I am disappointed with you.”
The woman went on to explain she was 86 years old, lived on Social Security and wanted to send $10 to Alice’s Kids. But she couldn’t, she wrote, because she didn’t have a “dot com,” and I had failed to include a mailing address in the column I had recently written about the organization.
“I am sure there are others, too,” her letter read.
When I wrote about Alice’s Kids earlier this month, I did so with the hope of showing what child poverty in this nation looks like on a day-to-day level.
Many of the requests for short-term financial help that come into the Virginia nonprofit are for seemingly small items that make significant differences for children whose families can’t afford them. Among the things asked for are shoes that fit, instruments that soothe and new glasses for children who have relied on broken ones.
The organization has paid for band trips that wouldn’t have been attended otherwise, birthday parties that wouldn’t have been held and, in one case this month, funeral clothes for a teenager who unexpectedly lost her mother.
Most of that financial help, I noted in that column, benefited children in the D.C. region and some as far as California and Texas.
But now, because of you, even more children, in states that previously had no connection to the organization, will find help.
After the column was published, so many of you contacted Alice’s Kids, offering donations, and in some cases your time, that the small nonprofit run out of an Alexandria home office is expanding its reach to other cities across the country and anticipates helping more children this year than it has ever had the capacity to do in its eight-year history.
“I’ve been in tears for days,” Executive Director Ron Fitzsimmons said. The generosity, he said, “has changed the face of this charity.”
I visited him at his home this week, and he showed me an inbox filled with donation notifications. They stretched for pages and reflected amounts that ranged from $10 to $1,000. One woman even donated $10,000.
Fitzsimmons said that about $80,000 has come in so far and that checks are still arriving in the organization’s P.O. box (which for my 86-year-old letter sender is P.O. Box 60, Mount Vernon, VA 22121. Sorry about that.).
The organization has previously relied on volunteers to do outreach work. It started this year with nine of them. Now, Fitzsimmons said, he has heard from lawyers and financial advisers who are offering their services free and people from across the country who just want to help these children in some way. Fitzsimmons said he has asked many of them to serve as outreach coordinators in their own communities so the organization can help children in more cities.
One person has also contacted him about setting up an affiliate in Canada.
“I’m just bursting,” Fitzsimmons said. “I’m trying to type thank you letters to hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands of people.”
Fitzsimmons and his sister, Laura Fitzsimmons Peters, came up with the idea for the organization based on their own childhood. Their mother was forced to go on welfare after their father left the family, and they remembered “humiliating” moments of wearing donated clothes and shoes with holes. They also remembered how their mother, Alice, at times would clean houses for extra money and, on those occasions, treat them to something new.
The way the organization works is that requests are made by teachers, counselors and social workers, people who know best which school-age children are most in need. Once that request is approved, Alice’s Kids then sends an electronic gift certificate for the needed item that can be printed and handed to a parent or other adult to take that child shopping. That way the children never know they received help from strangers.
A recent request asked for funds to buy books for a boy who struggles with reading but enjoyed the one copy of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” he found in his school’s library. Another described a mother who recently moved into a Virginia shelter with her 6-year-old and wanted help buying colorful pictures, positive quotes and other items that would “make the cold room look more pleasant.”
Fitzsimmons approved both.
Because that work doesn’t require much more than a computer, Fitzsimmons runs the organization from his home office.
His desk overlooks his backyard, and on a windowsill, directly in front of his laptop, sits a well-worn stuffed dog, with the name “Scrappy” sewn onto its side.
“It’s my reminder,” Fitzsimmons said when I asked him about it. His mother made it for him when he was 5 years old, and he once had to rescue it when all of the family’s belongings were tossed outside their home during an eviction. He lost a box of baseball cards that day because it started to rain, he recalled. “Scrappy keeps me grounded,” he said.
Fitzsimmons said while he has been struck by the generosity people have shown the organization, he has also been moved by the personal stories people have shared alongside their donations.
He, too, has received handwritten letters and cards in his mailbox in recent days. A stack of them sat on his desk.
“At this time of so much hate and anger in our country, reaching out to one child at a time can make a big difference,” one person wrote.
“I, too, am a child of an Alice,” another person wrote. “We definitely knew what it was like to go without, to make choices on how to get the most out of limited resources.”
“The word ‘humiliation’ jumped out at me,” read another. “I was one of those kids, and it is something that one never forgets — even almost 70 years later.”