‘Thrive From Day One’ (Richmond Magazine)

Photo by Richmond Magazine

It all started when Taylor Keeney decided to clean out a closet.

Pregnant with her second child, Keeney was nesting — getting her home ready for the arrival of her daughter. “I found baby bottles that had never been opened,” she recalls, “and clothes in really good shape.”

Rather than drop off the items at a local charity, not knowing where they would end up, Keeney began searching for an organization that would give the items directly to a family in need. When she couldn’t find a way to do that, she reached out to people she had met while working as Gov. Bob McDonnell’s press secretary and was eventually connected with the Henrico Department of Social Services.

“It was a lot of legwork on my part,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘There’s got to be an easier way. I can’t be the only mom who wants to do this.’ ”

In January, she began talking to people working in the foster care system and with social service organizations to find out if there was a need for baby items. The resounding answer: Yes. As she prepared for the arrival of baby No. 2, Keeney continued to talk to local organizations to assess how she could help best. “I didn’t want to start a nonprofit just to make myself feel good,” she says. “I wanted to do it if the need was there. It was critical to line up partners.”

Her daughter, Frances, was born May 8. In addition to caring for the baby and her young son, Taliaferro, Keeney spent her maternity leave from Hunton Andrews Kurth, where she works as director of strategic communications and advocacy, putting together a nonprofit, Little Hands Virginia.

Little Hands works with a network of social service agencies, shelters, hospitals and other nonprofits to identify the needs of local families. It collects new and “nearly new” baby items through community drives and corporate donations, sorts and bundles the items, then delivers them to parents and children through its partners.

“It’s a model that exists in other states,” Keeney says. “We’re not set up to verify need. The organizations are referring people to us. We don’t need to be reinventing the wheel.”

Little Hands launched in August, taking in donations and soliciting and fulfilling requests from partners who fill out an online form. So far, the requests have all been to help specific families, Keeney says, and nearly all include a request for diapers, which cost about $50 for a one-month’s supply. Clothing is also sought after, as are strollers and car seats. Little Hands provides the items to the requesting partners, who deliver them to the families in need.

They’ve done everything from providing a month’s supply of diapers to a Chesterfield County mom to helping a family who had lost everything in a fire while their premature daughter was in the NICU.

Katy Nowlin, an early intervention service coordinator with the Henrico Parent Infant Program, says that before Little Hands, she and her coworkers would try to fulfill requests within their office. “Once I got connected to Little Hands, it has been phenomenal,” she says. “I can put in a request and vouch for the families, and they don’t have to feel like they are begging. … I have had families who have practically nothing, and she has been able to help.”

Little Hands has held diaper drives and accepts both cash donations and donations of new and gently used baby equipment through a drop-off box at Richmond Public Library’s West End branch. A list of accepted items is available on Little Hands Virginia’s website. “We also crowdsource through social media if we need a specific item,” Keeney says. “So much of what Little Hands does is dependent on big hearts in the Richmond community.”

Little Hands started with just three partners in August but now works with a dozen, including local departments of social services, the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, Richmond Public Schools, Family Lifeline, REAL LIFE and more. By mid-November they had assisted 75 families in need.

“I don’t know if Taylor realized how quickly it would grow, but she has served a lot of families in a very short time,” says Megan Mbagwu, administrative coordinator with Family Lifeline. “It’s really amazing what she has been able to accomplish.”

Keeney is currently Little Hands’ only staff member, outside of a volunteer advisory board. She also continues to work full time and care for her two young children. Until recently, she worked out of a storage unit, but in mid-November, Little Hands and its stash of baby products moved into a donated space at Second Baptist Church on River Road.

She hopes to add a full-time employee at the beginning of the coming year and is looking at expanding into other areas of Virginia. “We are set up so this can be replicated in other communities statewide,” Keeney says. “It is amazing to see the need we are filling in the community.

“When I was thinking about what this nonprofit would look like, I could not imagine leaving the hospital with Frances not knowing how I was going to afford the next pack of diapers. I think it hits a soft spot with every mom in the community who has not had to worry about those things. We want to help families and their children thrive from day one.”

LINK: https://richmondmagazine.com/news/sunday-story/thrive-from-day-one/

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