The ‘offices’ of Caring for Kids are small: simply Jan Abrams’ desk, tucked in the corner of a board member’s office; the trunk of her car, which is always filled with backpacks, pillows and books for kids in need; and the basement of her home, where she keeps more supplies. The staff of Caring for Kids is small, too: just the petite Abrams, who for the past two years has served as program director of the nonprofit that meets the urgent needs of children involved in the St. Louis County Court system. And the budget, even by charity standards, is small, too. Last year, Caring for Kids spent $19,000, according to Abrams, who is paid as a part-time employee.
But the work the agency does is huge: it cuts through the red tape and bureaucracy that can make it difficult for court employees to quickly and directly help kids who come through the system. Caring for Kids was founded in 2004 by Susan Block after she stepped down from 25 years of service as a County judge, the last four as administrative judge of the county’s family court. “When she was a judge, she noticed that a lot of children’s basic needs were going unmet,” Abrams says. “One reason was money, and another was red tape.” The Family Court of St. Louis County receives 12,000 referrals per year, according to Abrams, many for children whose welfare is believed to be endangered because of delinquent behavior or a neglectful or abusive situation. And in at least 20 percent of cases, the court simply cannot provide what kids need. That’s where Caring for Kids comes in. In 2009, the organization served 290 children with beds, pillows, school supplies, grocery store gift cards, bus fare to go to summer camp and musical instruments so kids could participate in band or orchestra, among other things.
“We have cases as easy as school supplies,” Abrams says. “We have cases as critical as medical needs.” For example, a social worker recently contacted Abrams about a baby in foster care who was a victim of shaken baby syndrome. The infant needed to be weighed on a special scale calibrated to the 10th of a gram. It cost $140, more than the foster parents could afford. “That foster mom had that scale within four days,” says Abrams, explaining that Caring for Kids tries to respond to needs within 48 to 72 hours.
The nonprofit’s most frequent request is for beds. When kids enter the court system as a result of neglect or abuse, the court may set a date by which the family must comply with certain requirements or lose custody, such as getting electricity turned back on in their home or providing enough beds so each child has one. According to Abrams, kids have been found doubled or even tripled in beds, sleeping with parents, or on floors, pallets or couches. Sometimes, due to loss of a job or other circumstances, kids may have no place to sleep at all. In one situation, Caring for Kids helped provide the money for a family to spend a week in a hotel so they wouldn’t have to sleep in their car in December.
Caring for Kids meets not only basic needs, but tries to help with “extra activities that enhance the life of a child,” says Abrams, who has two grown sons of her own. That can mean providing a prom dress or tux rental, supplies for an after-school activity like cheerleading, or books for a reading program. “I want kids to know people care, so they can care about others,” Abrams says.
Sometimes, that involves more than simply supplying a pillow or a backpack. Abrams recalls the time she got a call about a young man who had been dropped off at his caseworker’s office on his 16th birthday. His mother had left him at his grandmother’s house, who in turn had taken him to the caseworker. The caseworker wanted to get him a cookie cake and hoped Caring for Kids would provide a gift card. So Abrams drove to Target and met the caseworker and the boy in the parking lot. The boy said, “Do I have to go with her?” Abrams recalls. He thought he was being passed on to yet another adult.
“No,” she replied. “I brought you a present.”
“I’ve never had a birthday present,” he said, then asked if he had to share it with anyone. When Abrams said no, he asked, “What can I buy?”
“Anything,” Abrams said. “What do you want?”
“I’d like to buy a book,” he said. So Abrams, who had been an English teacher and served 10 years on the Clayton Board of Education, asked him which authors he liked. He said he was a big fan of James Patterson, so she suggested he buy the author’s latest mystery. Then she went home and packed up half a dozen James Patterson books she and her husband owned, to pass on to the boy.
Abrams ends every board meeting with a story, and the tale of the birthday present was one of the most memorable. “That really got to them,” she says of the board. “We take so much for granted.”