This Nonprofit Is Making Sweet Dreams Come True for Kids
June 21, 2021
Early one recent Saturday morning, the school parking lot at Gaston High became a manufacturing facility where sturdy wooden beds were being built for children with no bed of their own. Teachers, staff members and students worked alongside volunteers with the Gadsden, Alabama, chapter of Sleep in Heavenly Peace, a national nonprofit organization based in Twin Falls, Idaho.
After two years of doing bed-builds like this one on a regular basis, Tommy Goodman, the chapter president, has it down to a science. The whole process takes about two-and-a-half hours, with stations set up for sawing, sanding, staining, drilling and even branding. (Each bed receives the monogram “SHP.”)
It didn’t matter if the volunteers had no experience with power tools or carpentry. On that bright, late spring morning, some 80 people brought a willingness to learn and a desire to help children who would otherwise be sleeping uncomfortably on the floor, on a box spring, in a chair or even, in the case of one 14-year-old, sleeping on a treadmill in a utility room.
The bed-build is “an incredible thing to watch,” says Jennifer Knighten McGriff, a teacher at Gaston High who is one of the coordinators of the school’s Peer Helper program. “Our kids really went above and beyond.”
The Peer Helper students wore black T-shirts with their simple motto, “Be a nice human.” The program, which was founded after a student committed suicide, “empowers our students to be peer support,” Jennifer says, “making our campus safe and inclusive.”
Last year, students throughout the Etowah County School System raised $8,000 for SHP by having a Pajama Day, in which they each donated a couple of dollars for the privilege of wearing their PJs to school. This year, they raised $10,000.
By the end of this particular day, the group at Gaston High had built 50 beds. But there’s always a waiting list. Right now, it stands at 100, according to Tommy’s wife, Valerie Goodman. “We knew there was bedlessness, but we didn’t know the degree,” she says.
'It'll change you'
In 2018, Valerie and her husband Tommy had been praying “to find purpose and make a difference” as a couple, she says. Tommy watched an episode of “Returning the Favor,” a Facebook show hosted by Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” fame, that focused on the work of Luke and Heidi Mickelson, who founded SHP in 2012. The nonprofit’s slogan is “No kid sleeps on the floor in our town!”
The show touched the Goodmans’ hearts and inspired them to start a chapter in Gadsden two years ago. “We both felt it was something we wanted to be a part of,” Valerie says. “Life has not been the same since. It has been insane.” So far, the Gadsden chapter has served 1,400 kids within a 50-mile radius of the city located on the Coosa River, northeast of Birmingham.
Valerie’s own mother “was one of those kids” who grew up not knowing what it was like to sleep in a real bed with sheets and a pillow. When Valerie met Tommy, she was a single mother whose son slept on a mattress on the floor.
Still, “We had no idea the level of need,” she says. “Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Once your eyes open to the need, it’ll blow your mind.”
As rewarding as it is to attend a bed-build like the one at Gaston High, she says, “When you go on a delivery, it’ll change you.”
After the beds are built, they await delivery – along with brand-new twin mattresses and bedding – to children from ages three to 17, most of whom live in households that are below the poverty line. “You would think we’d handed them the moon,” Valerie says. She recalls one delivery to four siblings including one child who had never had a bed in his entire 12 years of life. One little boy hid his treasured new pillow in the closet. He had never had a pillow of his own and didn’t want anyone to take it away from him.
Like all nonprofits, SHP has faced challenges during the coronavirus pandemic. The price of lumber has gone up, meaning the price of each bed they build has more than doubled.
The pandemic also affected the number of volunteers willing and able to help. There was a time when SHP couldn’t build or deliver, but they’re starting to see more people come out for public and private builds. “People always show up,” Valerie says.
Still, they can use more “core team members” to help build beds, as well as volunteers to help make deliveries. Another big need for the organization is for a permanent warehouse to rent. Right now, beds, bedding and mattresses are stored in three separate storage units.
The Goodmans persevere, passionate about their mission to provide beds for needy children. For the families they serve, Valerie knows SHP is making a difference. “Consistent poor-quality sleep has so many negative consequences, academically, physically, mentally,” she says. “It lays a very poor foundation and is not setting them up for success.”
With each delivery, another child or teenager is being supported, literally, with a bed of their own for sleeping and dreaming.
“We can’t do everything, but we can do something,” Valerie says.
Gadsden is one of five chapters of Sleep in Heavenly Peace in Alabama. The others are located in Gardendale, Hartselle, Oneonta and the Shoals. For more information about the organization, visit shpbeds.org.
(Photo courtesy of Jennifer Knighten McGriff)
Source: This Nonprofit Is Making Sweet Dreams Come True for Kids This Is Alabama (June 10, 2021) Michelle Matthews