Missouri woman founds nonprofit to deliver beds to needy kids

Saturday, March 19, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — Monica Starr and a friend sat silent in her car outside a Kansas City woman's apartment. They knew if they talked, they'd cry.

So they sat there, replaying in their minds what they'd seen.

The woman — with five children younger than 13, including an infant born with marijuana in his system — desperately wanted to keep her kids. She needed to show the state she could care for her children.

The rooms were bare. No beds. No dressers. Just a couch in the living room. At night, the kids huddled in a single room on blankets scattered on the old carpet.

"When I saw where they were sleeping, I was horrified. I couldn't imagine," said Starr, 37, who met the family as a volunteer for Jackson County Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA. "That's the moment when you think, 'How big of a jerk am I that I've never stopped to think of this?'"

This was all new to her. And shocking. Starr was a new mom. Educated as an art teacher. Husband an attorney. She had a floral shop in the Crossroads and had once owned a restaurant.

Nothing about her suggested she could do anything about the thousands of children across the area who every night have no bed to sleep in, who lie on thin blankets on hardwood floors or worn carpet, or who crash on couches or chairs.

Yet in October, two years after that first delivery — when she carried in five beds for that Kansas City mother — Starr started Sleepyhead Beds, a nonprofit she runs out of her dining room in Fairway.

Now she's the woman who often travels to inner-city neighborhoods and suburbs with a trailer hooked to her SUV, providing beds for needy children. She has a part-time worker and five volunteers, including her friend from that first day, Ryann Wilds, and a retired teacher who sold her the trailer. When Starr told him about her mission, he was hooked.

"Anyone who knew of this would go to any lengths to get kids beds, for gosh sakes," said Dennis All, who just recently spent a day helping deliver beds with volunteer Melissa Evans.

Already the crew has provided some 400 beds to area kids — and has a waiting list of 200 more.

Five of the beds have gone to Dana Taylor, a Kansas City mom of nine.

Her family recently moved into a nice apartment, fleeing a bad neighborhood and a dilapidated, mouse-infested home with a squirrel living in one wall. She didn't want to take the broken-down beds into the new space and couldn't afford to replace them, so her kids slept on the floor for a while.

She heard about Sleepyhead Beds. Two weeks after she made a call to Starr, the agency delivered the beds.

"There are a lot of people who act like they care, but they don't. With her, you can tell," Taylor said."When the Lord calls her, she is going to heaven. There's a real special place for her."

No one knows the exact number of area kids who don't have a bed to sleep on at night. There's no easy way to count the first-graders who sleep in recliners or squirm on hard floors trying to get comfortable. Or the middle-schoolers who squeeze between two or three siblings in a queen bed.

But experts and volunteers who work with needy children see it.

"It's something if you're not involved in, you really wouldn't think about," said Karrie Krumm, director of volunteer programs for Court Appointed Special Advocates. "A lot of us take it for granted."

Teachers see kids who are tired and unfocused, who drift off during lessons, too sleepy to stay awake. A child who doesn't get enough sleep can become irritated, have poor social skills, experience a decrease in creativity and take on bullying behaviors, said Ann Romaker, medical director for St. Luke's Health System Sleep Disorders Centers.

Children — even adults — need adequate sleep to function well, she said.

"This is what sets the tone for the whole rest of their lives," Romaker said. "I don't know how much more important we can make it than that."

Social workers and advocates try to help families get their children into beds.

"For many people it's not a basic need," said Kendra Brack, a family advocate at Operation Breakthrough. "Food and shelter, those are basic needs. Furniture comes last. You need a place to put a bed."

Before Starr established Sleepyhead Beds, agencies could do little to help. At Operation Breakthrough, more than 100 families needed beds last year. They often wait months.

Families who are victims of a natural disaster or fire can get bed vouchers from the Salvation Army. But no single agency specialized in providing beds for kids.

In the beginning, Starr planned to eventually provide 30 beds each month. Sleepyhead Beds delivered that many beds in the first 15 days.

Now she gets roughly nine requests a day.

"There are days when I get 25 calls," said Starr. "There are some areas of town, I know I could go to every single house and drop off four beds."

The beds she delivers are mattresses and box springs with bedding, new pillows and mattress pads. Some families can receive bed frames, too.

In November, the United Way of Greater Kansas City added Sleepyhead Beds to its 2-1-1 database of resources.

"There has been a need there," said Ron Howard, a United Way spokesman.

So far, the agency has referred 132 people to Sleepyhead Beds. And five people have called United Way with beds to donate.

When Brack didn't have beds at Operation Breakthrough she told some moms about Starr's new nonprofit. A short time later, they came in saying beds had already been delivered.

"I think she could probably do it forever and not meet the need in Kansas City," said Brack, who likes how Starr delivers the beds to homes and how she treats people.

"She's dignifying the families," Brack says. "She's doing it in a kind and respectful way."

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