COLUMBIA — After a long, hot July day last summer, Sabrina Lambrecht finished up her work on a neighborhood garage sale.
Despite her best efforts, Lambrecht found herself surrounded by piles of her two sons’ outgrown and unsold clothes.
NEEDED ITEMS: Diapers, wipes, infant and toddler clothing and shoes, toys, children's books, infant feeding items, newborn necessities and baby equipment.
ONLINE: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.facebook.com/comocare
MAIL: CoMo Cares, P.O. Box 30581, Columbia MO 65205
That’s when it hit her.
“Why don’t I give those clothes to kids who really need it?” she recalled.
That same July, she contacted volunteer agencies to get advice about launching a nonprofit organization. On the last day of the month, she founded CoMo Cares, a nonprofit group benefiting local children up to 5 years old who need basic necessities.
Lambrecht, 34, is now executive director of the organization. She put an MBA degree on hold to found CoMo Cares, then discovered it was a full-time job.
The organization accepts donations of gently used items such as clothes, toys, books and cribs from the community. These items are recycled to the children who need them most.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 18.6 percent of families in Boone County with children under the age of 5 live in poverty. Since July 2012, CoMo Cares has helped more than 60 children, and Lambrecht has hand-delivered items to every child the organization has ever served.
“I always feel like Santa Claus,” she said with a smile.
The Healthy Bottoms Diaper Drive kicks off April 27 with drop-off locations in front of Walmart stores. It will be the organization’s first communitywide effort to gather donations of the most-needed item. Diapers and other baby gear will be accepted from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“Diapers are the most expensive thing new parents spend their money on,” Lambrecht said. “We consider it a basic human need.”
The drive will continue for two weeks, until May 10, with multiple drop-off locations around the community: Commerce Bank, Green Meadows Preschool, Tigerside Intergenerational Preschool and the Rock Bridge Child Development Center.
Finding children in need
What was once Lambrecht’s basement has been turned into CoMo Cares’ makeshift headquarters.
Nearly 1,000 articles of clothes are neatly organized in colorful bins, all sorted by size. Picture books sit on shelves that line the walls of the basement, some with slightly worn edges.
Pink princess castles, toy dinosaurs and pop-up play tents litter the floor, leaving limited space to move about the basement.
Lambrecht says donations began rolling in almost immediately after she told a couple of her friends about the organization. Each one spread the news. Before Lambrecht knew it, calls and supplies started arriving every day.
"People are more apt to give if they know you are going to give it right back out to the community," she said.
With a basement full of toys, clothes and boxes, her initial concern was finding the children in the community who needed her services most.
Two years ago, Lambrecht remembers seeing a pair of kids waiting for the school bus near her house every morning. Even in the middle of winter, the children never wore coats or hats.
“I finally decided to buy them hats and gloves after seeing them with nothing for so long,” she said.
But when she went to knock on the family's door, she learned that they had just moved.
“That always stuck with me,” she said.
When they hear about kids in need of the donations that CoMo Cares has on hand, Lambrecht receives the contact information.
“I have a referral form so I know the exact size of clothes they need, their specific requests and any special needs the child has,” Lambrecht said.
Voluntary Action Center is one of the service agencies that sends referrals to CoMo Cares. Executive director Nick Foster said the agency focuses on serving health, education, housing and unemployment needs, so he refers other queries to the appropriate organizations.
“We give families whatever we have in stock, such as formula and diapers,” Foster said. “But if they need more, such as toys or books or anything we don’t have, we always send them to CoMo Cares.”
Diapers are the biggest need
Although Lambrecht's basement is overflowing with donations, CoMo Cares always needs diapers. A new parent typically spends as much as $1,200 a year on diapers alone, she said.
Government assistance programs provide families with financial support, but it's often not enough to cover all basic living expenses, let alone diapers, Lambrecht said. And food stamps cannot be exchanged for diapers.
“It’s not like you can train a 6-month-old to use the toilet,” Lambrecht said.
She has even heard that mothers reuse dirty diapers when they cannot afford fresh ones.
“Not only does it hurt the baby physically, it hurts the relationship between the mother and the baby,” she said.
Beyond basic necessities
The motto for CoMo Cares is “Helping Children Thrive, Not Just Survive.”
Lambrecht goes beyond minimal needs to serve families in other ways. In addition to food, clothes and diapers, she believes all children deserve to engage their brains. She encourages donations of puzzles, books and toys, as well as baby equipment and accessories.
“A child can survive on very little,” she said. “They can wear the same clothes and eat little food. But to thrive, you need so much more than that.”
“You wouldn’t imagine how much a swing can relieve stress on a mother,” she continued. “Every new mom needs a break, so being able to put down your baby in a swing even for a couple of minutes relieves stress on the baby and the mom at the same time.”
While CoMo Cares helps many families living below the poverty line, there are no income guidelines. The organization has helped those who have lost everything after a fire and parents who have temporarily lost their jobs.
“If you are in need for that time, we help you,” Lambrecht said. “The middle class is suffering, too. We want to serve as an emergency safety net."
Lambrecht is a stay-at-home mom working on her MBA through William Woods University. The university is allowing her to use CoMo Cares as her capstone project.
She considers her experiences as a mother an important driving force behind the organization. Lambrecht is the mother of two sons: Pierce, 4, and Britton, 1.
“Having to keep up with a growing child is hard,” she said. “It’s confusing, and you always don’t know what you are doing.”
She said learning to care for her children was a bit of an experiment.
“A lot of it is instinct,” she said. “And some of it is 'you fake it until you make it.'”
Her sons have joined the excitement Lambrecht feels for the organization, taking their mother’s work seriously. They must donate six of their own toys before Christmas in order to get any new toys, for example.
“My main goal is that hopefully they will grow up to be giving as well,” she said.
Moving to a new location
Lambrecht has begun to organize her basement stockpile for a move into a retail space, which she anticipates will happen once CoMo Cares receives its 501c3 nonprofit designation.
“In January, we realized the stockpile was growing more than my basement can handle,” she said.
When the store opens, half the donations will be sold at low cost to support the store, while the other half will be free through a voucher system.
Service agencies will provide families in need with the vouchers that can be used to purchase anything the family needs at the moment.
“We want these families to feel like they are just going to the store to shop,” Lambrecht said. “And it allows them to pick out exactly what they want for a child.”
Besides donations, the CoMo Cares store will also be a resource center, where families can seek help with child-abuse prevention, crisis intervention or child development assistance. Eventually, Lambrecht hopes to open a diaper bank in the store.
In the midst of planning events and organizing her stockpile for a move, she continues to remain true to why she started her service organization.
“Every child should be allowed to thrive,” she said. “And it’s our goal that every child should have that opportunity.”