PAGEDALE — Stephanie Williamson puts the finishing touches on two grant applications over a lunch of almonds and Vitaminwater as more than a dozen brown grocery bags are dropped off in the lobby.
Each bag is filled with a week’s worth of clothes for boys and girls of various ages, packed and labeled by volunteers.
“We’ll go through them all tomorrow,” said Williamson, 44, of University City.
Eight years ago, soon after leaving her corporate job, Williamson founded the nonprofit Helping Hand-Me-Downs to provide struggling parents with clothes, toys and household items for their children.
She started out scouring Goodwill stores and storing items in her home, helping 575 children in the organization’s first year. This year, Helping Hand-Me-Downs is on track to serve about 7,000 children from four drop-in locations across the St. Louis area. Parents can also get help with housing and jobs.
An eight-year celebration luncheon will be held Friday at The Chase Park Plaza, honoring eight community partner organizations, eight volunteers and eight mothers who are thriving thanks to the assistance.
“It’s exciting, and I’m so glad to have been able to, you know, be a part of it, and all the growth and meeting all the people,” Williamson said.
Meeting all the people. That part has been key to the success.
Williamson gets to know the parents, mostly single moms, who come through the doors. Many are so thankful they return as volunteers. Two of the moms have become employees.
“You really feel welcomed, a sense of warmth, a sense of family,” said Ro Moore, 44, who receives assistance for her 1- and 3-year-olds and also volunteers. “They’ve walked in your shoes. They understand what it’s like to be a mom and really be in need of help.”
On a recent morning, Chelsea Case, 32, of St. Louis, visited the main Helping Hand Me Downs location in Pagedale. Dressed for work, Case rolled in a basket of clothes her 4-year-old son had outgrown to exchange for a new set. She asked politely about shoes and a winter coat.
Williamson brought out a bag full of clothes with two pairs of boots on top. “Oh my God, this is perfect,” Case said, beaming.
Williamson went to the back and returned with a new navy coat. Case cheered. As Case turned to gather her things, she said, “I want to give you a hug.”
She said it in jest, but Williamson turned her around. They hugged and laughed.
“It means everything,” Case told a reporter as she left. As a single, working mom, she said, “You have to be able to present yourself and your child.”
Williamson loves the hugs.
“There is no greater feeling than when a mom sees you, and she’s overcome so much, and she just runs in and gives you a big hug,” Williamson said. “She tells you all about how she’s made a huge change in her life and how things are so much better, and she just really appreciates everything we did.”
Stuck in these jobs
Williamson left her job as the senior director of the tax credit division at TALX Corporation when it was bought by Equifax in 2007, wanting to spend more time with her two young daughters. She and her then-husband became foster parents and eventually adopted a baby, which Williamson said inspired her to help more children.
She interviewed social workers from 40 hospitals and service agencies to learn what their clients’ biggest needs were.
“They said, ‘Well, when we send families home from hospital, we know that they don’t have everything they need,’” Williamson recalled, from cribs and baby monitors to breastfeeding supplies and toys.
Williamson incorporated Helping Hand Me Downs and hustled for grant money. When she filled her living room, library and dining room , a friend donated space in Creve Coeur. She eventually moved to a larger space on Olive Boulevard in University City.
She created a steady flow of items from resale shops. She met Ally Vesper, now 49, of Ballwin, who volunteered to do behind-the-scenes work like creating spreadsheets and designing a website. More volunteers wanted to help, from drivers who pick up and drop off donations to school groups who sort clothes.
Last year, a community development initiative for municipalities within the Normandy school district provided funding for an even bigger storefront in Pagedale, open six days a week, with two employees.
Also last year, Historic Trinity Lutheran Church donated space and volunteers to open a satellite site in Soulard. And because so many women were traveling from Jefferson County, Williamson opened another in Crystal City. Two women also volunteered to run a location in House Springs.
Williamson says the organization operates on a $700,000 annual budget with three full-time employees, seven part-timers and more than 400 volunteers.
Parents can drop in any time the locations are open. They just need a referral from a hospital or social service agency. Parents exchange items they have received for new items as seasons change and their children grow.
Williamson also has developed relationships with car mechanics, a therapist, landlords and employers to help parents overcome other challenges. Operation Food Search sends food once a week.
Many moms, she said, are working two part-time jobs with no benefits, struggling with transportation and day care.
“Our moms stuck in these jobs make like $8 an hour, and they just don’t know that there’s other jobs out there that they’re qualified for, because they don’t think very highly of themselves. They don’t think they have the skill sets,” Williamson said. “We can get those moms making 10 to 14 bucks an hour in some cases, and that’s much more livable than eight.”
With many moms coming from cities like Spanish Lake and Bellefontaine Neighbors in north St. Louis County, Williams is not content. She’s already working on a fifth location.
“I’m so hard on myself. I see what I didn’t do,” she said. “I wish we’d already opened up our other North County office. I wish I had more employees. I wish our budget was over a million dollars.”
You know what to do
Angela Cooper, 39, of St. Louis, returned to the Pagedale location one recent morning to get boots the right size for her 4-year-old daughter. The day before, Cooper received a jacket for her daughter with a unicorn mane and wings. She wanted to show the manager, Monica Wade, a picture.
“She puts it on and says, ‘Mine. Mine!’” Cooper told her.
Wade, 44, of University City, started out as a volunteer at Helping Hand Me Downs while receiving help with baby clothes for her now 4-year-old daughter.
Wade remembers when she was also so thankful for a jacket — “a cute, little peach pea coat.”
A master at clipping coupons and finding deals, Wade would bring 100 bars of soap or bottles of shampoo for other moms. She found herself hunting for items they needed and staying as long as she could, learning their stories.
Wade is strong. She’s had to be. The father of her now 17-year-old daughter, knowing the dangers that black men faced in their struggling Wellston neighborhood, warned her to live as if he wasn’t there caring for her and their new baby, “so when I’m gone, you know what to do.”
Six months later, Everett Hill Jr., 27, was shot to death in front of their home in an argument over a missing bike.
“I knew what I had to do to keep going on,” Wade said, “to put a roof over our heads.”
Four years later, Wade’s brother, Tony Wade, 35, was shot and killed while selling marijuana.
Other hardships have included the time her purse was stolen with her phone, gift cards and food assistance inside. Then there was an emergency surgery for an ovarian cyst.
Still, she’s the shoulder that other moms cry on. “I just reassure them nothing stays the same,” Wade said. “I’ve been there. I know it can only get better.”
Williamson noticed how Wade always did more than what was asked, how she gained other moms’ trust.
Wade will never forget when Williamson said, “We’re opening up a new location, and I think you should run it.”
Wade immediately thought, no way. But Williamson insisted.
Two months after starting as manager, in June 2018, Wade’s best friend, Jamar Conner, 26, was shot and killed while walking to a park for a birthday party in the Hyde Park neighborhood. Conner and Wade had long worked together at Southview Assisted Living.
Making others happy helps her cope with the trauma, Wade said. “I live to give. I love being able to help.”
Now, she is the one who cries on Williamson’s shoulder.
Williamson said she wants Helping Hand Me Downs to feel like family. She wants parents to feel like they can call when they are in trouble.
“I’m the executive director, yes, I’m the founder,” Williamson said, “but I want to know what’s going on. I want to hear. I want to see. I don’t want to be in a board room.”