The young single mother was finding life hopeless when she ended up living in a shelter with her baby daughter, a life she had never imagined. Then she received a box marked "Baby Girl" that was filled with little clothes to outfit her baby for her first year.
"I wept when I opened the box of baby clothes. Thank you for helping someone you don't even know," she wrote to the donors, a nonprofit group called Loved Twice.
The organization collects clothes sizes 0 to 1 year, which are sorted by volunteers and distributed by licensed social workers to families in need, including mothers undergoing poverty and domestic violence.
Volunteer Colleen Botelho, a retired school district employee who lives in Pleasanton, discovered the group last year.
"My daughter had given me a bag of baby clothes after her second baby boy, asking me to take care of it," Botelho said. "It was just sitting there, and I was thinking maybe I should give it to a shelter."
Then she read a newspaper story about Loved Twice.
"It was like a light bulb went off in my head," Botelho recalled.
She went to www.lovedtwice.org and found the closest donation bin was in Walnut Creek. Botelho contacted founder Lisa Klein to ask why there were no bins in Pleasanton and learned it was a matter of volunteers' time -- so Botelho decided she would volunteer for the organization, too.
"It became my goal to find a donation site in each of the Tri-Valley cities," Botelho said.
She met Joyce Gunn, a retired librarian from San Ramon, who also wanted to help.
"We got together and brainstormed," Botelho said. "She said, 'What about libraries?' Libraries are open almost every day of the week, and lots of families with kids go to story time."
The librarians in Danville agreed to host a bin. Also Botelho was able to place one at Pleasanton's Prim POP boutique on Main Street, which specializes in baby clothes, and across the street at Towne Center Books to collect board books. The beginner books are included in the boxes along with small blankets, hats, socks and bibs.
Botelho has friends who help her sort the clothes, which are mostly basic onesies and sleepers but also a few fancy outfits.
"We'll drink coffee and ooh and aah over how cute they are," she said with a laugh. "Somebody in Danville has been knitting or crocheting -- we got all these brand new little baby hats."
Klein called Botelho "a superstar volunteer."
"She has set up collection bins in the Tri-Valley area and has personally filled up her trunk with thousands of baby clothes," Klein said.
Some parents face hard choices about covering basic expenses, which in turn affects their ability to bond with the new baby, Klein noted.
"We lost our jobs before Amelia was born," wrote recipients Jamie and Tom. "These clothes will allow us to pay rent. Thank you!"
Klein, who lives in Oakland, began the effort in 2005.
"I used to work in advertising in San Francisco and always loved it, but when I had a child, I decided to stay home and raise her," she said.
When Hurricane Katrina struck, Klein saw an online community appeal for donations of baby clothing. She rallied her mom friends and collected 200 pounds of clothing for the babies in Louisiana in just four days. Then she realized the Bay Area had needs for baby clothing, too.
"It was something to do to fill my time that felt amazing," Klein recalled.
Her home was soon full of baby items in different stages of being sorted, as she gave new life to the tiny clothes that she and her friends -- and their friends -- had in abundance.
"Then friends said to sign up as a nonprofit so donors could get a tax write-off and I could get space to use outside my house," Klein remembered with a laugh.
Now her organization collects and distributes more than 200,000 garments to babies each year, whose average household income is less than $16,000, and Klein said she has a waiting list of agencies with clients who desperately need baby clothing.
"We put the collection bins where we know we'll get nice clothes," Klein said. "The moms who donate the clothes absolutely love it. And the clothes collected in the Bay Area stay in the Bay Area."
She also likes keeping items out of the landfill, 1.8 million items since 2005.
"In the spirit of reuse, it feels good to be able to donate our gently used clothes and help a struggling family," Klein said.
Loved Twice partners with businesses, schools, churches and parenting groups to host clothing drives, and it has more than 150 hospitals, safe houses, clinics and homeless shelters that distribute the boxes.
A young mother named Amber wrote: "You made me smile and I haven't done that in a very long time. I hugged the baby clothes as tight as I hugged my new son."
Klein also works with large corporations, which give grants and provide volunteers to sort clothes. Recently, 133 volunteers at Google filled 187 boxes with 14,025 infant garments -- in two hours.
"These baby clothes, worth $49,000, will be keeping infants warm via Homeless Prenatal Program and APA Family Support Services in San Francisco and Native American Health Center in Richmond," Klein said.
"We see the value of Loved Twice's work two to three times a week, especially during these difficult economic times," said Misty Schultz, a social worker at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center. "The result of this generosity is invaluable for our families -- to leave the hospital with dignity and have a box full of clothing that will last a year."
Help the babies
Loved Twice needs baby clothes during the holiday season, as well as funds for expenses. Collection bins are located in Pleasanton at Prim POP, 560 Main St., for clothing and blankets, and at Towne Center Books, 555 Main St., for board books; in Danville at the library, 400 Front St., and at Whimsy Kids at Danville Livery and Mercantile. Other sites are listed at www.lovedtwice.org.