Welcoming babies with bundles of love

Community of folks who sew and knit, who shop, who organize, and who build reach out to families in need

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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You can help

If you are interested in volunteering, donating or learning more about Babies in Need, visit babiesinneed.org or call Kitty Ash at 360-573-8299.

Donations can be left in a covered bin behind the Episcopal church at 2206 N.W. 99th Street; it is marked Babies in Need and emptied every day. Larger donations should be brought by during church office hours: 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.

photoKitty Ash, director of Babies in Need, shows off the agency's new storage warehouse, Tuesday, March 20, 2012. The floor-to-ceiling shelves and large rolling bins were built and installed by Friends of the Carpenter, the downtown drop-in day center for homeless people that doubles as a wood shop.

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photoAsh shows off some of the items in Babies in Need’s new storage warehouse.

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She was fleeing domestic violence in Idaho. She arrived at a Clark County hospital with the clothes on her back, three young children and another one about to be born.

“Some of these moms literally have nothing,” said Kitty Ash, who doesn’t know who that mom is -- and doesn’t need to. What’s important to Ash is knowing that mom and baby, who arrived in our area destitute and desperate, have gotten what they need -- at least for a little while.

“To get that baby launched right is what we’re all about,” she said. “And to let that mom know, there are people who care. Someone is behind her.”

Hospital-based nurses and social workers alert Babies in Need, the nonprofit agency

that Ash and others started, when a newborn and family could use help. Babies in Need’s clients are largely low-income moms and babies who are “at risk” or have some sort of special need. Many of the babies are born prematurely, to moms who are homeless or living in shelter, immigrants or people with medical problems or fleeing domestic violence.

“These are babies who have problems or who don’t have resources,” Ash said. “They need help.”

Babies in Need provides them with complete three-month layettes: pajamas and gowns, underclothes, receiving blankets, crib blanket or quilt, towels and washcloths, diapers and wipes, a sweater and a hat, a crib toy and a book. Recently, thanks to some generous donations and grants, the group has started distributing brand-new car seats and folding cribs too.

It all started one day in the late 1990s, when Ash was chatting over coffee with a church friend who worked as a nurse at Southwest Washington Medical Center. A new mom was getting ready to be discharged, the nurse said, without even a pillowcase to call her own. The nurse was hunting for one to give her.

“It’s hard to conceive just how little some of these moms have,” she said. “It really tugged at our heartstrings.”

Ash investigated and learned that nurses and social workers at the hospital regularly spent their lunch hours running out to buy basic supplies for the new moms who’d otherwise hit the street with nothing -- except their newborns.

Babies in Need was launched. First it did business out of Ash’s own basement in the Salmon Creek area. Donations from private people, local churches and others quickly grew to the point that her basement was nearly submerged under clothes and baby stuff.

“We’d spread things all over tables and chairs. It was just nuts. Too much stuff,” Ash laughed.

Since then, she said, the group has moved twice, first from Ash’s basement to the basement of the All Saints Episcopal Church in Felida and then to its current home -- a new, freestanding building on the church grounds at 2100 N.W. 99th St.

It was the Vancouver United Methodist Church that got that project underway. The church has supported Babies in Need with ongoing donations of supplies and cash since 2005; then it chose the charity for its primary outreach partner for 2011 and donated $6,000 from its Christmas fund drive.

Ash was inclined to turn that extra largesse down, she said, simply because Babies in Need didn’t have the space for it. It was already bursting out of its borrowed All Saints basement. “You’re really sweet to offer,” she started to tell the Methodist church, “but we’re not able to accept. What we really need first is our own building.”

Church member Ray Johnson, a busy volunteer with Habitat for Humanity with plenty of skilled construction contacts, didn’t bat an eye.

“We can do that,” he said.

After that, Ash said, the gifts and donations kept piling up. The Meyer Memorial Trust came through with a grant for $24,999; the Vancouver Rotary Foundation gave $5,000; and there were many more thousands in donations, labor and discounts from individuals, schools, clubs and businesses.

“It has been fabulous community support,” said Ash. “It was really a miracle the way it all came together. And it was fun.”

The 20-by-30-foot building rose over the winter and was dedicated in January. It is heated and appointed with floor-to-ceiling shelves that were cut and installed by Friends of the Carpenter, the downtown drop-in day center for homeless people that doubles as a wood shop.

“These good people not only cut the pieces, but assembled 30 trays and sanded them beautifully,” Ash wrote in a Babies in Need year-in-review newsletter. “Then they assembled and painted eight large bins on rollers that will hold incoming donations, quilts, blankets and other bulky items. Another blessing!”

The space is cleverly set up so that volunteers can take bags and move around the room from left to right, filling them up in assembly line fashion. “One of these, four of these, two of those,” Ash said. “It is really functional, and everything is easy to get to.”

Layette assembly is set for the second Tuesday afternoon of every month, Ash said.

Car seats and folding cribs weren’t part of the original deal, she added, because new ones are expensive and used ones legally suspect -- but a friendly relationship has sprung up between the charity and the Latter-day Saints church right across 99th Street, which recently donated new, safe equipment that was purchased at a discount.

Babies in Need now distributes 30 to 35 layettes per month, Ash said. It’s all done through hospital nurses and social workers; there’s little or no direct contact between the Babies in Need volunteers and the young families they’re supporting.

As of the end of 2011, Ash said, the group has given out a total of 3,160 layettes, 1,551 car seats and 584 sibling gift bags. Donations tend to come in big waves, especially before Christmas and Mother’s Day; things drop off during the rest of the year but it all evens out, Ash said.

It’s all a tale of unexpected blessings and community connections, she said. And in case you need another blessing in disguise, here’s this: About a month ago, in the wee hours of the morning, a car piloted by a drunkard veered off the road, onto the church lawn and straight for the Babies in Need building. It was going well over 100 mph, Ash said, and the result could have been tragic in lots of ways.

But the speeding car somehow managed to swerve in between the big church building and the smaller Babies in Need one, flattening some landscaping and smashing through a walkway hand rail but causing no serious damage or injuries.

“That was a blessing, that they missed our brand new building,” Ash said. “And no one was injured. Thank the Lord!”

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; http://twitter.com/col_nonprofits; scott.hewitt@columbian.com.