As the weather turns colder in Chicago, many of us start taking out our winter clothes from storage or look to purchase new gear to stay warm. Unfortunately, there are kids in Chicago that don’t have this luxury. In fact, many children don’t even have the basic essentials in any season, let alone warm jackets and clothes for the winter. Almost 200,000 children in Chicago live in poverty, which is a staggering number. For Cradles to Crayons, their mission is to help make life better for these children in need by providing them the essentials they need to thrive.

I was recently connected to Cradles to Crayons because my family had some baby clothes to donate. We wanted to make sure that the donated clothes went to a cause or organization that will ensure the items reached kids who would need them most. Fortunately we found giveNkind, a nonprofit that helps connect donors with organizations needing the donations, which matched us with Cradles to Crayons. After dropping off the bags of donations at their facility on the northwest side of the city, the staff was kind enough to give me a tour of “The Giving Factory” and explain what they do there. The Giving Factory houses Cradles to Crayons’ local business and volunteer operations. The organization’s mission inspired me to learn more. In fact, I signed up to volunteer at The Giving Factory and also had a great opportunity to sit down and talk with their executive director, Bernard Cherkasov.

For many people, a single event can inspire and have a positive impact on the direction of their life. For Cherkasov, that was the case when he was a young child. “I have a vivid memory of being 9 years old and us receiving a box of boots and coats for us. I remember the sense of going to school the next day, wearing my brand new coat and feeling so excited that there are people in this world who really cared for us and really wanted us to do well,” he recalled. Years later after studying law in college and then working as an attorney, he saw a chance to become more hands-on in nonprofit and to be part of the change that he wanted to see in the world. The first opportunity that convinced Cherkasov that nonprofit was where he needed to be, was at Equality Illinois, whose mission is to secure, protect and defend the civil rights of LGBTQ Illinoisans, which he led for 7 years. But his memory as a child receiving services similar to what Cradles to Crayons provides stayed with him. “When I heard that Cradles to Crayons was looking to expand to Chicago I knew this was my mission and I wanted to be part of it,” he said.

Cradles to Crayons was originally started in Boston and the Chicago location opened in August 2016. Since that time, the Chicago branch has served 49,000 children (from birth to age 12) and looks to expand that impact even more. With just over a year of operation in Chicago, Cradles to Crayons has worked hard to get a foothold in the city and gain the trust of the community that their work is reaching the kids in need. For Cherkasov, getting established in a new city and gaining that trust of volunteers, donors, and the community has been one of the top achievements of the organization so far. The organization realized its impact was working when they noticed many returning volunteers and referrals. Running The Giving Factory to serve thousands of kids and building a strong base of volunteers and donors is hard work, so it’s incredible that Cradles to Crayons Chicago currently only has 13 staff members! Bernard said this speaks to the importance of the army of volunteers and generosity of the community in their mission.

The Giving Factory

When I volunteered at The Giving Factory a couple of weeks ago, I could feel the impact I had as an individual and how the organization empowers their volunteers to embrace the mission. The Giving Factory is a large warehouse and when you step inside you immediately see the vast amounts of donated material, which include clothes, shoes, backpacks, books, diapers, strollers and an assortment of baby items. Even though there was a tremendous amount of items stacked everywhere, the warehouse was neatly organized in stations.

The process of taking a donated item and getting it to its final form as a kid pack is purposefully detailed to make it as efficient as possible. The first step is to fill out a note with a positive message using markers and crayons for a recipient of one of the kid packs. Then you are directed to a station that the volunteer coordinator deems as a high priority for that day and time. For example, I helped sort clothes into different bins by age and gender and also ensured the clothes were of high quality. There are motivational quotes posted all over the facility that inspire you as you work. One quote in particular resonated with me: “Quality = Dignity”, which is central to Cradles to Crayons approach. Donations are required to be new or nearly new condition before they are delivered to a child. To these children, receiving items that are new helps support their dignity, which is so important.

When I asked Cherkasov who the main beneficiaries of Cradles to Crayons’ services are, his answer opened my eyes to the actual impact of their organization. “I feel we benefit all of Chicago,” he responded. Aside from the Chicagoland kids they serve by providing high quality essentials, Cherkasov explained that the volunteers experience a transformation as well. “Chicagoans that can contribute and volunteer, it is a transformative experience because every moment you spend in The Giving Factory, sorting products for quality, or cleaning toys, or putting together outfits, or customizing the kid pack orders, you know that you’re adding purpose to your own life.” Cherkasov pointed out this transformation is especially important when kids are volunteering and providing these services for another kid. He recounted a story of a little girl who volunteered with her family at The Giving Factory. When the volunteering session was over, the girl asked if she could stay longer. When her mother told her they needed to go, the girl asked if she could come back another time with her friends and possibly even host her birthday party at The Giving Factory. The mother was moved to tears to hear her daughter speak those words.

Volunteering for two hours next to a group of students from a local high school and college students from Northwestern University, I saw how people from all walks of life can band together to make a difference. But most importantly, seeing those students sorting through the donated clothes to ensure the clothes were in good condition, you can see young people comprehending how simple things like having nice clothes that fit could impact a child. Watching the future of our society giving back was pretty amazing.

Call to Action

There are many ways to make an impact with Cradles to Crayons. Check out their Take Action page to see how you can make a difference. Whether you’re donating goods or money, spreading the word, or volunteering at The Giving Factory, your efforts will directly impact a child’s life immediately. To see examples of the impact that volunteers can have, here are some sunshine stories from the grateful families and kids.