Just days into the pandemic, Taylor Keeney received a frantic call from the YWCA of Richmond. A mom was on a train to Richmond with nothing but her baby and the clothes on their backs, fleeing domestic abuse and seeking shelter through the YWCA. The ask: Could Little Hands Virginia help this mom get settled into her new life?
As the founder of Little Hands Virginia, Keeney’s response was immediate. She quickly packed up clothes for the child, a car seat, a stroller, and other essentials a baby might need. She also included some blankets and a stuffed animal.
This was not the first time Little Hands had received a call like this. Unfortunately, it happens regularly, and has increased during the pandemic.
Founded in 2019, Little Hands is a Richmond-based nonprofit that provides essentials for young children (newborn to three years old) in Central Virginia.
Prior to the pandemic, one in three children was economically disadvantaged in the Richmond region, according to Voices for Virginia’s Children. Nearly 40 percent of families in the City of Richmond lived below the poverty threshold, based on data from the United Way.
“As a mom of two toddlers, I couldn’t imagine not being able to afford diapers, not being able to put clean clothes on my children as they grew, and not knowing how I would afford a car seat. The reality that so many families in our community face these issues started to weigh on me,” says Keeney.
While on maternity leave with her second child, Keeney began putting together the nonprofit. Little Hands is Keeney’s side project; her full-time job is leading communications and advocacy for a local law firm.
Working with a network of more than forty partners, including local agencies, shelters, hospitals, and other nonprofits, Little Hands identifies the needs of families throughout Central Virginia. Partners include Richmond Public Schools, Henrico Department of Social Services, Richmond and Henrico Health Districts, Housing Families First, Chesterfield Infant Program, Communities in Schools, and CrossOver Healthcare Ministry.
The nonprofit’s model relies on the donation of new and like-new items through community partners. Volunteers sort and bundle items and deliver them to families and partner agencies.
The organization’s most in demand items are the things many families take for granted. “A pack-n-play for a baby means a safe place to sleep at night. Diapers mean a child is clean and can go to daycare. A car seat allows a child to be transported safely,” says Keeney. “A stroller helps a mom get her children from the bus to childcare, do errands, and get around town. These are basics that many families take for granted.”
Since launching, Little Hands has reached more than a thousand children in the Greater Richmond region. In 2020, the organization provided direct assistance to 610 children. The small team, Keeney and Director of Operations Ashley Raggi, work daily to identify families and children in need in Central Virginia, line up volunteers to help with deliveries, and manage donations from the community.
Little Hands and the COVID-19 Pandemic
When the pandemic hit in March, the need for essentials skyrocketed.
Throughout 2020, Little Hands worked with the Virginia Department of Health’s COVID-19 response team to safely deliver basic items to families in quarantine. That work led to new partnerships with the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts and the YMCA of Greater Richmond to provide ongoing support for families due to hardships from the pandemic.
“We had a family come to us that only speaks Farsi and had challenges communicating and identifying opportunities in the area when the father lost his job due to COVID,” said Jana Smith, senior operations director of community health with the YMCA of Greater Richmond. “They have two young children, both in diapers. We connected the family with Little Hands who brought them all their baby necessities from milk and diapers to highchairs and car seats… and the support continues.”
Planning for the Future
In 2021, Little Hands wants to double the number of families served and provide more support for those families. “Recognizing that there will always be children in need, which in the middle of a pandemic is going to continue to grow, we’re ready to help more families and improve outcomes for the littlest hands in our community,” says Keeney.