Courtesy/Eastside Baby Corner
Courtesy/Melanie Smith Studios
Courtesy/Melanie Smith Studios
A visitor looking for Eastside Baby Corner (EBC) might be excused for thinking they were searching for a modest storefront in a quiet strip mall staffed by a handful of devoted volunteers. They would be right about the devoted volunteers but mistaken in all other details. This “corner” is a bustling warehouse in Issaquah, a community in King County, east-southeast of Seattle. On any given day it’s a hive of activity as people drive through to drop off donations, pick up items for distribution or head to the office to learn their assignments for that day. It is also an emphatic answer to the question, “How much difference can one person make—really?”
In 1990, Issaquah resident Karen Ridlon became aware of the number of babies who were starting life without adequate food, clothing or beds. A certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner working in well-child and newborn care, and newborn ICU support, for several medical groups, Karen saw the impossibility of trying to teach a parent how to feed their infant when they didn’t even have access to bottles or the necessities for nursing. She had read about a small “baby corner” that was working with Swedish Hospital in Seattle. She convened a gathering of providers including public health nurses to get their feedback on the idea, and then began collecting items in her home.
She reached out to people from area churches and her neighborhood, and to parents of children in local schools—anyone she could buttonhole to contribute, or to come help her gather and distribute the growing mounds of donated items. Response from the community was overwhelming, says Helen Banks Routon, who has been EBC’s director of development and community relations for 13 years.
“The project almost immediately outgrew Karen’s home,” Routon says, “so she went to real estate property developer Skip Rowley and said, ‘Can I have a little storage unit?’ Skip eventually said, ‘OK, here’s a 10’ by 20’ unit. Pretty soon she said, ‘I need more.’ So then it was a bigger unit and then a 4,000 square foot building and now, we’ve expanded to 15 bays in this warehouse facility.”
For 30 years now, Rowley Properties has donated at least 75 percent of the warehouse rental and have been partners in every way, she says, from serving on the board of directors to participating in fundraising efforts. With Karen Ridlon’s vision and Skip Rowley’s generosity, the corner has now grown into an agency that in 2020 alone distributed $3.6 million worth of products, averaging 12,266 orders for essential products each month. EBC provides for children ages birth to 12 and families below the poverty line. It now reaches more than 13,000 children annually and distributes more than 1.6 million diapers each year. Volunteers donate more than 30,000 hours annually.
From stacks of donations in Karen Ridlon’s house, this little corner has grown into a mature organization with an annual budget of $5,119,045, a fulltime staff of 18, hundreds of volunteers and a community that it both supports and is supported by.
The agency’s stated purpose, “To help kids reach their full potential tomorrow by meeting basic needs today” is both a mission statement and marching orders, Routon says. The model is not to provide direct assistance to individual families, but to “help the helpers,” through a network of agency partners including food banks, social service agencies, schools and others who work with vulnerable people. Families can access EBC through 238 program sites in the central Puget Sound service area.
EBC now has three hubs in the Puget Sound where donations are processed. The Issaquah warehouse often overflows—literally—with the community’s generosity as volunteers sort piles of clothing, toys, furniture and every imaginable accoutrement that could improve the life of a vulnerable child or parent. And some accoutrements that are simply baffling, Routon says, such as the gift of a bunch of child-sized sparkly high heels. The shoes never went in the clothing bundles but did make their way into table décor for fundraisers. Some of the not-so-functional frippery gets routed to the Halloween section where it eventually makes some kid really happy.
The sorting, labeling, storing and distributing of all this generosity runs like a well-oiled machine. Streamlining the process has been an organic progression developed over time by volunteers and staff whose contributions are welcomed and implemented.
“It used to take way longer to fill orders—and we did a lot less,” Routon says. “The system is constantly growing and changing. Somebody came up with one part of it, another person came up with another part. These people who come in every single week will eventually say, ‘You know, we could do this better…’
“And we always say, ‘OK, great. Whatever works.’”
The pandemic has had a powerful impact on the work of Eastside Baby Corner, both by significantly reducing the number of volunteers and financial contributions, and drastically increasing demand for its services. Large corporate groups such as Windemere Real Estate, Microsoft, Expedia or Liberty Mutual used to bring in 10 to 50 volunteers at a time as part of their give-back to the community. The Covid-related stay-home orders brought those big gatherings to a standstill while at the same time, the need for goods and services skyrocketed.
- The number of product orders increased more than 33 percent over the previous year and recurring orders increased by 28 percent—indicating the need for EBC assistance to migrate from supplemental to sustaining, as families in need remained unable to move on from their constrained circumstances.
- EBC assisted 5,014 households, of which 3,306 were “first time ever ordered.” Meanwhile, diaper donations dropped 49 percent in 2020 as diaper distribution rose by 47 percent. The Rapid Response program provided 332,485 diapers.
And things don’t look a lot better so far in 2021, as 27 percent of EBC’s households now indicate they are experiencing homelessness.
The agency fulfills orders regularly, offering their partners a catalog of about 250 items, from newborn diapers to a craft kit for a 12-year-old, Routon says. On Thursday afternoons, the orders close and volunteers get busy fulfilling the requests. The labels not only have the child’s age and size but try to capture as much information as possible so volunteers can personalize the orders for the individual child and also try to be mindful when possible to provide items that are appropriate for their cultural or ethic background. Whenever someone receives items from EBC, they know they are cared about and cared for.
“Orders can be huge, like an entire week’s wardrobe in what we call a Big Bundle,” Routon says, “or it could also just be for a bar of soap. We just see how many labels have come in every single week and we pull those items and fulfill that request.”
Sometimes, life throws families very large curve balls and EBC’s team is there to meet that need. A woman might be fleeing domestic violence with nothing but the clothes on her and her children’s backs. A family might find itself evicted and unable to access its personal items.
“Three weeks ago, a family was burned out in an apartment fire. The woman was pregnant and went into labor,” Routon says. “Overlake Hospital called us and we immediately turned around a full layette, a pack-and-play bed, nursing equipment and everything else they needed because the fire had left them with nothing.”
EBC is now working with partners who are resettling Afghan refugees. Agencies such as the Afghan Health Initiative and Jewish Family Services can order the families anything they need to help them get started in their new lives. So far, about 150 Afghan families have been processed and settled in King County; Routon said she knows the need will continue over the coming year.
The need that EBC is addressing is by no means limited to Washington’s Puget Sound region. According to Joanne Samuel Goldblum and Colleen Shaddox, authors of Broke in America: Seeing, Understanding, and Ending U.S. Poverty, one in three moms in the U.S. now struggles to afford diapers for their babies and, though more than five million U.S. babies and toddlers live in poor and low-income families, no government programs provide diapers or funding to purchase them. EBC is part of the National Diaper Bank Network that grew out of Goldblum’s work and is working to address this need throughout the U.S.
👉 Read “For Want of a Diaper, Families Are Getting Lost: No Diapers. No Day Care. No Job.”
Though the need is massive, these organizations’ existence demonstrates that the situation doesn’t have to be hopeless. It will begin to shift when enough of us personally respond to that question Karen Ridlon answered three decades ago: “How much difference can one person make—really?”
K.C. Compton worked as a reporter, editor and columnist for newspapers throughout the Rocky Mountain region for 20 years before moving to the Kansas City area as an editor for Mother Earth News. She has been in Seattle since 2016, enjoying life as a freelance and contract writer and editor.