ST. LOUIS • About 50 students at the city’s Walbridge Elementary School visited the “boutique” in an old classroom one recent morning. A first-grader smiled shyly as volunteer Kristin Kostecki wrapped her in a new pink, puffy coat.
Kostecki noticed the girl’s feet.
The volunteer pulled off her shoe, and the girl’s toes uncurled. Her foot measured a size 12.5, and she was wearing a 10. That afternoon, volunteers delivered a new pair of shoes, along with the coat and this note:
“It is the mission of the Little Bit Foundation to break down barriers that keep children from receiving the best possible education. Your child has received these items from Little Bit with care, respect and lots of love.”
What started 15 years ago with a soccer team’s coat drive has grown into the nonprofit Little Bit Foundation, with boutiques in 25 of the most poverty-stricken schools in St. Louis city and county. The foundation has grown from delivering necessities like socks, underwear and toiletries to providing meals, book fairs, science programs, health screenings and behavioral health interventions.
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And some of the schools are reporting better attendance rates, behavior and test scores. Confluence Academy — Old North says 98 percent of its kindergarten students were reading at grade level for the first time last year. Attendance has risen to 88 percent at Earl Nance Sr. Elementary School.
All the while, the foundation has kept its hands-on approach. A core group of four or five volunteers visits each school one morning a week to deliver needed items. In doing so, the volunteers get to know each child.
“It’s much more than stuff,” said founder and director Rosemary Hanley, 55, of Ladue. “We are here each and every week, and it’s that dependability and love and respect for them that will be lasting.”
At Walbridge, all 230 students come from families whose income falls below the national poverty line. Many don’t know where they will be sleeping each night. They arrive wearing ripped pants and stained shirts. They whisper that they need underwear, clean socks or their own toothbrush.
After getting fitted for a coat and shoes, one lanky fifth-grader picked from the baskets of new underwear and socks.
Whenever he gets paid, the boy told the volunteer, he runs to Family Dollar to buy socks. He hasn’t had socks for a while, he said, and that makes his shoes smell.
Tracey Moore, a counselor at Walbridge who works closely with the volunteers, explained how the 11-year-old tries to earn money at the gas station by sweeping floors or pumping gas for customers. He knocks on doors asking if he can rake leaves.
The boy often brings in his and his little brother’s clothes, and Moore launders them in a washer and dryer the foundation donates to each school.
It is not the be-all and end-all of academic success, Moore said, “but when kids look better and feel better, they do better. Instead of slouching over, their backbone is straight. Their head is up.”
‘Something changed in me’
In the winter of 2001, the soccer team Hanley’s son played on at Christian Brothers College High School held a coat drive for the homeless. Another mother found a school in need of their kid-size coats, and she asked Hanley to help her deliver them.
Seeing the boarded-up buildings, crumbling houses and trash-strewn lots surrounding the school was eye-opening. “I was not aware of that kind of poverty in St. Louis, just miles from my house,” Hanley said.
She remembers it was a bitter-cold, blustery and dark winter day. A small boy, maybe a first-grader, arrived at the same time she did. The sleeves of his coat dragged on the ground, and the zipper was broken. He smiled big and said, “My dad let me wear his coat today!”
When she zipped the same boy into his very own coat later that morning, Hanley told him how handsome he was. He beamed. “My dad is going to be so happy I got a new coat,” he said.
Hanley imagined his worried father, trying to do his best. “Something changed in me that day,” she said.
Hanley befriended a special education teacher at the school, the now-closed Elliot Elementary near Fairground Park. The teacher would tell her what the students needed, and Hanley would send emails to her friends asking for underwear, gloves or navy pants. They dropped items off on her front porch. Hanley delivered them once or twice a month.
The teacher moved to other city schools, and Hanley added those to her list. Her friends held clothing drives and introduced her to businesses and civic groups that wanted to help.
After three years of email blasts and trips into the city, Hanley quit her job designing large graphic displays for Fortune 500 companies. In 2006, the foundation became a nonprofit.
Hanley went from working out of a friend’s basement to a storage room at CBC, to a space provided by an office furniture store. The foundation now operates out of a 3,500-square-foot warehouse donated by appliance parts distributor Marcone on the edge of downtown.
Volunteers in the schools use an app listing every child, to make and keep track of orders. Volunteers in the warehouse package the orders for the next day. About 250 volunteers fuel the operation.
Services have expanded too. With the help of big donations from companies such as Express Scripts, Hanley tries to respond to every need.
Stories of children happy because their birthday meant having cake instead of nothing for dinner, or saving apples from their lunches for their hungry parents, led to a partnership with Operation Food Search to stock pantries in the schools and send children home with meal kits.
Children with abscessed teeth, broken eyeglasses and uncontrolled asthma led to partnerships with dental, vision and health care workers who provide basic care, screenings and referrals at least once a year in each school. Nurse practitioners visit some schools twice a week.
Poor households often lack books, so children get a book paired with a stuffed animal. They get backpacks filled with pencils and notebooks. They participate in lessons provided by the St. Louis Science Center to boost interest in science and technology.
“While we were in schools and becoming part of the community, we started to learn about other needs not being met,” Hanley said. “It was very personal how it grew.”
‘Yeah, I need a hug’
Nance Elementary, where 10 percent of students are homeless, began its partnership with the foundation at the start of last school year.
The school has seen the percentage of students with good attendance increase to 88 percent from 76 percent, said principal Jana Haywood. Suspensions have dropped 300 percent and test scores have improved.
“It’s not rocket science,” Haywood said. “Kids can’t learn science if they are hungry. They can’t focus on learning if their basic needs like clothing and shelter haven’t been met.”
Haywood said the personal interaction sets the foundation apart. The group is not just dumping bags at the door. “It’s actually touching that person. It makes it very real to students to know that there is someone in the world that cares so much,” she said, “that they are coming every week and interacting with them.”
Sam Marquard, a nurse practitioner with the nonprofit Institute for Family Medicine and professor at St. Louis University School of Nursing, conducts health screenings at the schools with a team of nursing students.
Marquard remembers a 6-year-old boy who was complaining his arm hurt. She did the usual tests but could find nothing wrong. The boy was very sad and did not want to budge. “I said, ‘Do you just, do you need a hug?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I need a hug.’”
The boy nuzzled and sunk into her like he was her own child.
“I realized, yes, I need to check their heart and lungs, but I also need to ask them what they are worried about,” Marquard said. “Ever since that kid, one of the first questions I ask is, ‘Is there anything you are worried about today?’”
The answers are haunting, she said. They worry about a father in jail or the chill in the car they will sleep in that night. They’ve seen their mother get shot or a friend killed by a wayward bullet.
“So much of what we do, which I was not expecting, was this non-hands-on part of health care,” Marquard said. “Just listening.”
The volunteers, health providers and school staff share what they know about each child, so they can work together in meeting his or her needs.
Principals cite help for students dealing with trauma and the stress of poverty as their biggest need. That brings Hanley to her next goal: placing a therapist in each school.
The foundation has already embedded therapists in two schools, and is working with behavioral health organizations to train teachers in how to better identify trauma in children and help children acting out.
Hanley wants to adopt at least two more schools next school year and expand the foundation’s reach. It serves about 7,000 area students each year, still just 4 percent of children living in poverty in the St. Louis region.
The principal at Nance says the foundation should make another change as well.
“They should consider changing their name because what they do is far more than a ‘little bit,” Haywood said. “It’s great. It’s humongous.”