Twenty-five years ago, back when Room to Grow’s founder Julie Burns was starting her nonprofit organization that helps parents and children in low-income circumstances, actress Uma Thurman was her neighbor. Recalls Burns, “Uma was pregnant with her first child during this time.” Fast-forward to today and Thurman’s first child, Maya Hawke, is now 24 and also an actor in the business, known for her role as Robin on Stranger Things.
Room to Grow has flourished over the years as well. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the charitable group, which has spread its roots across New York City and Boston and currently works with 1,300 families. Plans are in the works as well to expand to a third region. Their secret to success? The organization has a unique three-pronged approach to helping children in their first three years, offering developmental support for kids, parenting support, and essential items such as books and clothing for babies and toddlers.
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“Eighty percent of a child’s brain develops by their third birthday,” says Thurman, a founding board member of the nonprofit and its ambassador. “Room to Grow steps in during the incredibly critical, life-altering years that set children on a path toward health and success. The work being done is vital to so many who don’t have access to these resources.”
Under the guidance of CEO Akilah B. King, the organization offers a comprehensive approach that empowers families and benefits children from before they are born. Parents can start working with Room to Grow during the last trimester of a pregnancy. Until a child turns 3, clients meet one-on-one for two hours with staff once every three months at one of the organization’s family centers in New York or Boston.
Explains King, “We provide critical support to families who are raising young ones. Our families come and visit a family center once a quarter and we talk about the challenges and the joys of early parenting and really focus on the needs of the child and their development to just support the overall family.” She adds, “We make connections to additional community resources. This really helps expand the support network of our families and addresses issues that range from housing to healthcare to employment.”
In the United States in 2023, poverty for a family of three (for instance) is defined as making less than $24,860 a year. Parents in these circumstances who have been clients of Room to Grow say that the organization has helped them reduce stress and they report self-confidence in parenting. Not to mention, an impressive nine out of 10 children in the program meet or exceed their developmental milestones. “Ultimately our work is to try to close achievement and opportunity gaps. As we invest in these kids early on, they will ultimately have a greater and better trajectory in life. That’s the vision of our work,” says King.
This Mother’s Day, the nonprofit is looking for donors to support the group’s mission of helping families. There are a number of ways to help out, from donating baby and toddler items (including from the organization’s wish list) to making financial donations. Room to Grow is also seeking volunteers to help with sorting and organizing essential items at its family centers.
This fall, the nonprofit also will hold its New York gala to mark its 25th anniversary.
Burns recalls the early days of the organization. “I was working as a therapist with school-age children. This was in the mid-1990s and at that time I had recognized a lack of support services that were dedicated to children under the age of 3. At the same time, there was this emerging evidence around how important the earliest childhood experiences are and how dramatic the longterm impact is of those experiences. I saw that there was no other organization offering the kind of comprehensive support needed for children in these most vulnerable years.”
“I realized,” continues Burns, “that it required a robust model of service that responds to all the needs of the child, not only the child’s physical development but also the sort of wrap-around engagement with the parents as the primary teachers and sources of support.”
As the organization hits its milestone 25th year, Burns has been reconnecting with families who are former clients of Room to Grow. “When I began the organization, I actually worked as the clinician as well as running the organization. It was a one-person operation for a while. So these families from back in the late ’90s now have children who are in their mid-20s,” says Burns, who is putting together a retrospective study of where families are now.
Recently, Burns connected with a mom who she first worked with back in the late 1990s. “I dialed her number and she picked up immediately and it’s such a cliché, the years truly melted away,” relates Burns. “When I told her who I was, she almost screamed. It was so lovely and so positive. She was on a cruise ship with a gig as a jazz singer and I remember it was such a dream of hers at the time. She was on a beach in Honduras with the day off but in addition to that she shared with me that her son is in his final year at Howard University studying in the engineering field and he’s a math tutor as well.”
Burns is also immensely grateful for the unwavering support of Thurman, who has been by her side since the beginning. “Honestly, never in my mind could I imagine we’d be sitting here 25 years later and Uma would be as involved and as deeply committed and engaged as she is,” says Burns.
Adds Thurman, “Working with Room to Grow and Julie Burns for the past 25 years has been one of the greatest honors of my life.”
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