Growing up poor in a largely middle class community can create some additional challenges for children navigating the social universe at their schools.
Having personally experienced some of these challenges growing up, Ron Fitzsimmons formed the small nonprofit Alice’s Kids, based in the Mount Vernon area, to help children in ways that other social services agencies and nonprofits can’t. The organization gives out small grants to help kids get new clothes or shoes, go to prom, and enroll in camps or sports programs.
“What he promotes is a sense of dignity,” said Katherine Doyle, a school social worker at Mosby Woods Elementary School who has referred students to Alice’s Kids. “I think he really helps families and kids enrich their lives.”
The organization is named for Fitzsimmons’ mother, Alice, who raised Ron Fitzsimmons and his brother and sister with the help of public assistance programs in West Islip, N.Y., after their father left the family in the mid-1960s, taking his paycheck with him.
“We were living in a middle class neighborhood … and suddenly we were the poor family,” Ron Fitzsimmons said.
He recalled teasing and embarrassment about things like wearing the same shirt for days in a row. In his freshman year of high school, Fitzsimmons said he missed 67 days of school because he just didn’t want to go.
At the same time, he also remembers the occasions when his mother had a little extra money, usually from cleaning houses, and would use it to buy something her children really wanted, like new shoes or a baseball glove.
“I always remember the feeling of pride the next day jumping on the school bus with a nice new pair of Converse sneakers,” Fitzsimmons said.
Through Alice’s Kids, he hopes to give other children that same feeling.
He has carefully set up the organization’s process so that the children don’t have to know that they’re receiving charity, and so that they can be empowered to shop for an item of their choice at a store, rather than picking out secondhand goods or selecting from donated items.
People who work with kids in need, like social workers or school counselors, can contact Alice’s Kids with a synopsis of the family’s story and an explanation of what the need is. They don’t need to fill out extensive paperwork or even name the family.
“We try and keep the whole thing anonymous,” Fitzsimmons said, while still taking some steps to ensure that the grants benefit those truly in need.
Alice’s Kids then issues a purchase order to Target that the parent can use to purchase a specific category of item or issues a check to the program for the case of sports or other program fees.
Fitzsimmons posts the stories to the organization’s Facebook page to help raise awareness about the pockets of poverty in one of the wealthiest communities in the United States.
“I want people to know what the situations are with kids out there, how many kids are in need,” he said.
Alice’s Kids recently helped a family that by covering fees to get their three children enrolled in summer programs they were interested in.
“They were super excited,” Doyle said. “These are kids that would have been sitting at home with nothing to do.”
United Community Ministries, the primary social services nonprofit for the southeastern portion of Fairfax County, sometimes refers clients to Alice’s Kids for needs that it can’t meet, said Diane Hill, development and communications officer with UCM.
For example, a social worker noticed that a teenage boy had big holes in his shoes.
“He didn’t want to say anything to his mom,” Hill said, because he knew she didn’t have the money. Alice’s Kids provided a grant for new shoes “so that young man could fit in with his peers and not be embarrassed,” she said.
Fitzsimmons estimates that he has helped about 500 to 600 kids since forming Alice’s Kids in 2011 and is now averaging about 300 to 400 small grants each year.
He said he is receiving more interest in the service as word spreads. He originally set out to help kids in his Mount Vernon community, but is now starting to get requests from throughout the county.
A group in Anne Arundel County, Md., is in the process of forming an affiliate chapter of Alice’s Kids, and Fitzsimmons said he has received interest in the concept from as far as Las Vegas, Nev.
Fitzsimmons said he is interested in expanding, but only at a pace that the fundraising can keep up.
“I never want to say ‘no’ to a kid, and we haven’t had to yet,” he said.
To donate to Alice’s Kids or for more information about the organization, visit aliceskids.org.