By Lina Mai
Special to DNAinfo.com New York
CONEY ISLAND — Ten months ago, Coney Island resident Brittney Parbon was pregnant and struggling financially, grappling to pay her bills and buy the multitude of products needed to prepare for a baby.
After living in a homeless shelter with her 1-year-old daughter for seven months, she was finally preparing to move into an apartment in Coney Island.
“I didn’t have anything,” said Parbon, for the second child. “I didn’t have the money to get what I needed for my baby, and I didn’t know how I was going to get it.”
Parbon’s case manager contacted Little Essentials, a not-for-profit that collects donations of lightly used baby and toddler items from Brooklyn residents and distributes them to impoverished parents.
Little Essentials’ founder, Sandie Trombert, sprung into action, providing the 20-year-old mother with a personalized package of baby goods, including a crib, double stroller, bottles, diapers, and several Ikea bags crammed with clothing.
“They [Little Essentials] helped me out a lot,” said Parbon. “I’m blessed that I was able to get these items.”
Parbon’s daughter is one of the more than 1,600 children that the Fort Greene organization assisted since Trombert started it more than two years ago in order to meet the growing needs of a rising population of poor families in Brooklyn.
Since the economic recession began in 2007, the number of New York City residents living in poverty surged by 195,000 to 1.7 million. One in three Brooklyn families have sunk below the poverty line and requests for Little Essential’s services continues to grow. Trombert had 63 orders for donations last year and 255 so far in 2012, but a tenuous economic recovery has left the organization struggling to stay afloat.
In an effort to fill its depleted coffers, Little Essentials will participate in a fundraiser, a Family Holiday Party, on Dec. 10 at Der Schwarze Koelner Biergarten in Fort Greene. The event will be hosted by Mocha Moms Brooklyn, a local support group for mothers.
Little Essentials nearly shuttered its doors last month due to a lack of funding. The organization survived because board and advisory members kicked in money and Trombert received the promise of a grant from a foundation.
“We’re breathing, but it’s always a struggle,” she said. “We have four organizations looking to partner with us, but I’m putting that off because I can’t handle the influx of requests. That’s probably another 500 kids a year that we could be helping.”
Additionally, Hurricane Sandy’s devastating storm surge displaced thousands of the city’s residents, many of them low-income families, placing an even heavier strain on Little Essentials’ limited resources. Trombert said she has been deluged with donations for deliveries of baby products since the storm.
In addition to fundraisers, Trombert is actively seeking funding from several major foundations. She hopes an influx of cash would allow her to hire a program assistant, rent warehouse space and a van (she currently sorts many of the donations in her home and uses her car to make deliveries), and to partner with more social service agencies.
Prior to starting Little Essentials, Trombert had a lucrative job as an executive in the film industry. But she did not feel fulfilled by her career, she said. When she became pregnant four years ago, Trombert began to actively seek a position in the not-for-profit sector.
While scanning listings on her local parent board, Fort Greene Babies, she noticed an urgent request submitted by a volunteer with the city’s Department of Health asking for donations for a pregnant mother and her three children. The woman’s husband had been deported, and she suddenly found herself evicted and unable to generate income because of her citizenship status.
“It was heartbreaking,” Trombert said. She amassed the requested baby products by responding to postings for free baby items on Fort Greene Babies.
Soon, she began to get more requests from the health department.
“There were always these stories that were absolutely horrific,” she said. “I just really didn’t imagine that [you could be so poor that] you couldn’t afford a onesie for your baby. Right next door to us, there are people living in that situation.”
Trombert soon realized that she could fill a niche in the nonprofit world — linking mothers who have an excess of baby gear with those who lacked even the most basic necessities.
“I’m facilitating the connection between one mom and another mom,” she said. “It’s a connect-the-dots situation.”
Initially, Trombert brought items directly to families.
While she still handles most of Little Essential’s daily operations, including collecting, cleaning, sorting, and storing donations, she began distributing the goods to social service agencies to meet the soaring needs of the city’s poorest children.
Social workers at Little Essentials’ 12 partner organizations, which include city agencies, churches, and nonprofits, submit requests to Trombert on behalf of their clients. Trombert then fulfills each order individually by sorting through the donations she has stockpiled in two rental storage units in Fort Greene.
Cathleen Freemantle works as a case manager at one of Little Essential’s partner organizations, Brooklyn Perinatal Network, a Brownsville-based community task force that aims to reduce infant mortality. Freemantle has called upon Little Essentials to help her provide baby and toddler products to nearly a dozen pregnant moms living below the poverty line. “They are a true blessing,” Freemantle said.
In addition to working with her partners to donate baby products to mothers in need, Trombert has also launched toy drives at two public schools in Fort Greene. She hopes to collect more than a thousand toys to donate before the holidays to homeless shelters, hurricane victims, and partner organizations.
As Trombert struggles to meet the rising demands of Brooklyn’s impoverished families, she continues to stockpile baby products and distribute them to her partners.
On a recent Wednesday, Trombert drove to Freemantle’s Brooklyn Perinatal Network, the items in her back seat labeled with the name of an expectant mother living in poverty.
“These people seem to be desperately looking for help,” she said. “The need is endless.”
The Little Essentials benefit party will take place Monday, Dec. 10, from 3 to 5 p.m. at Der Schwarze Koelner, at 710 Fulton St. Music, food samples, goodies, games, and kid-friendly yoga will take place, and donations of cash and gently used toys will be accepted.