The too-long sleeves of the boy’s coat scraped against each step as he climbed the concrete stairs of his school on that frosty winter day.
Though it was just 26 degrees in St. Louis that morning, the little boy didn’t seem to mind.
He was too excited and proud to wear this coat. It was a warm coat, and it was special because it was his father’s. His dad lent it to him on this very cold day because he didn’t have one of his own.
“He couldn’t be more beautiful,” said Rosemary Hanley, who was at the school that morning handing out coats through a drive organized by parents at her son’s school, Christian Brothers College High School.
“We got to the office and started giving out coats, and I put that boy in a navy blue coat, and put his hood on and zipped him up,” Hanley said. “I said, ‘oh my gosh, you are so handsome.’ And he said, ‘my dad will be so happy.’ And something happened. I just changed. I didn’t realize the need, but once I saw it I had to do something about it.”
In 2001, she co-founded The Little Bit Foundation, whose mission is to break down barriers that prevent children from receiving an education.
It started with just a coat drive, but then grew to include a food pantry, behavioral health support, wellness programs, literacy programs and much more.
“We try to fill any need we see that can create a more level playing field so that they can concentrate on an education,” said Hanley, who is now executive director of The Little Bit Foundation. “Our ultimate goal is for more students to graduate from high school and become more productive adults.”
Right now, Little Bit works with 7,000 children in 25 schools – 13 of which are St. Louis Public Schools. The nonprofit focuses heavily on literacy, and supplying the kids with what they need to get to school.
For many of these kids, the latter is no easy task.
That’s why Little Bit’s model is so unique.
At each of their schools, they have an assigned “army” of volunteers that is embedded within the school community.
“We’re there in the schools at least once a week, sometimes more,” Hanley said. “Each school has a Little Bit Boutique, and we fill orders per what a child needs individually. As needs are identified we will deliver that to that child. We make sure it’s appropriate and that it fits.”
Little Bit makes sure each child’s medical needs are addressed, and each school gets a washing machine and a dryer so that clothing can be washed.
“In poverty, one of the first things to go is hygiene,” Hanley said.
Once necessities like cleanliness, wellness, food and health are addressed, then – and only then – can other important programs like literacy be effective.
At each school, Little Bit works with a liaison who is employed by the district, typically a family specialist. The Little Bit team also works closely with other school staff such as nurses, social workers and even teachers.
For Little Bit to be in a school, working with the children, the average cost is $50,000 per school of 300 kids.
So a $25,000 grant like the one they have received from the Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund for four years, provides half a school with all of our services for a whole year, Hanley said.
“Our first grant we received from SOS was the first large grant that we ever received,” Hanley said. “We are a grassroots organization, and that grant changed the perception of Little Bit in the community. Every time we receive that grant more people know about us. It’s not only the money, it is the exposure and the support that goes along with it that has been amazing.”Written by Bethany Prange of 618 Creative for Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund.