Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Kensington girl sends moms and babies a special delivery

Young nonprofit founder distributes care packages to the needy

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Chris Rossi/The Gazette
Elissa Redmiles, 13, of Kensington sits surrounded by baby care packages she assembles and distributes for low-income mothers through her charity The Baby Blanket Project: A Foundation From the Heart. She started the project, which has distributed 500 baskets so far, when she was just 5 years old.

When Kensington's Elissa Redmiles began steering her own charity for struggling mothers and babies, she was barely out of swaddling clothes herself.

In 2000, a 5-year-old Elissa saw something on television that changed her life. She doesn't remember the exact content, but a news segment was illustrating poverty of some kind, and a big epiphany struck the small girl:

"It made me think that I have so many things, and many people had absolutely nothing," Elissa said.

Spurred to action, Elissa insisted she and her parents assemble gift baskets containing baby bottles, blankets, a bib, booties, a book and a stuffed animal to distribute to needy mothers and children.

"I wanted my parents to pay for it, and they decided that wasn't such a good idea," Elissa said. Undaunted, Elissa began a letter-writing campaign, soliciting donations from first from friends and family, then businesses, acquaintances, and through word-of-mouth. A bouncing baby charity was born.

Now eight years later at age 13, Elissa is the Founder and Charitable Giver of The Baby Blanket Project: A Foundation From the Heart. The charity achieved nonprofit 501(c)(3) status in 2006 when the law firm Williams and Connolly LLP of Washington, D.C., filed the paperwork pro bono upon reading of Elissa's receipt of the Prudential Spirit of Community Award.

So far the project has distributed more than 500 baby packages throughout the District and Maryland, as well as Colorado, where Elissa is from originally, and Israel, where Elissa had connections through a teacher. Baby blanket packages are distributed based on need, and often, she said, it is great.

"Sometimes I get thank you notes from moms, and also siblings," Elissa said. "And then there was a girl who was only 14 and she had a baby, and she didn't ever get gifts anymore—the baby got everything— and she was so excited just to get a Baby Package because there was something in it for her."

By law—in spite of eight years of dedication to her cause —Elissa can't be president of the organization's board until she's 18. Her mother fills the role on paper, but says Elissa is still running the show.

"I didn't think it would last," said her mother Beth. "But she is just so passionate about it it's amazing. She is just a little go-getter, she makes all these calls."

An only child, Elissa said she hadn't spent much time around babies when she first decided to help them.

"I'm not sure why I chose them. I guess because they need a chance at life, and later on maybe there's not as much room to make a difference," Elissa said. "I particularly wanted the book (included in the package) because I wanted them to have a better chance at education."

Unfettered by her own outside obligations as a student and kid, Elissa continues to "make space for the Baby Blanket Project," stumping throughout the community for donations of money and new baby items. Most recently, the foundation received contributions of new baby items from Carter's and Baby Aspen. Two upcoming fundraisers to be held at Bethesda businesses La Miche and Gifford's will each reap a portion of one day's proceeds for the foundation.

Laura Reed, the Project Specialist for Aspen Brands, said she decided to coordinate a donation of discontinued baby blankets after receiving an e-mail from Elissa. She said she was impressed by Elissa's approach and maturity.

"I think the project is excellent, I think it's inspirational for people like me, mothers, that are raising children, and people who think there's something wrong with the next generation that's coming up, because, well, here's a young lady that is really doing something that just brings a smile to your heart," Reed said. "For somebody of that age to get up the gumption to call a big company and make her case and do it politely and well is just very inspirational."

"It's just fun. I like being able to do it," Elissa said. "I'm hoping as I get older and more skills, I could expand it to perhaps clinics, so moms could come in and learn how to be a better parent, or learn how to get health care. For now, I just want to help moms and babies any way I can."

Aug. 28: The French restaurant La Miche (7905 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda) will donate a percentage of the day's proceeds to The Baby Blanket Project, and will continue to do so every month on a designated day.

Sept. 13: Baby Blanket Project representatives will scoop ice cream at Gifford's (7237 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda), and a portion of the day's proceeds will be donated to the Baby Blanket Project.

To make a donation, go to www.thebabyblanket .