Barzella Papa, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of North Central Florida, sat down for this Q & A interview with Genevieve Piturro, founder of the Pajama Program, a national program committed to providing every child a positive bedtime experience.
Barzella: What is the Pajama Program?
Genevieve: Pajama Program believes that every child, no matter their circumstances, has the inherent right to a loving good night, complete with the comforting bedtime ritual of changing into clean, warm pajamas and enjoying an enchanting story. Pajama Program offers at-risk children these magical gifts – new pajamas and new books – so that they can enjoy the greatest benefit of a loving bedtime and peaceful good night: a fulfilling good day.
B: How did you come up the idea for the Pajama Program?
G: Almost 20 years ago, I visited an emergency shelter in NYC. I started reading with children who were separated from the adults they lived with by police or social workers. One night, as I said goodbye to the children, I watched them go into a nearby room to sleep. They slowly climbed onto couches and futons. Some were crying, and the staff tried to comfort them and ease them onto a soft surface. There was no changing of their clothes, no bedtime stories, no hugs from moms or dads. I was paralyzed. This was not the way bedtime was supposed to be for a child. I waited for the staff to finish with the children and asked them if they needed pajamas … could I bring some? I couldn’t believe what the staff told me about the children who were brought to them every day and every night. The stories of abuse and neglect were horrifying and heartbreaking. I couldn’t change what had happened to these children but at least I could give them a pair of warm, clean pajamas. The next week I brought 12 pairs of pajamas with me – one for each child I was told would be there.
As the children came into the room to sit and read with me, I gave each one a pair of pajamas. After a few minutes, one little girl looked up at me.
“What are these?”
she quietly asked.
“They’re pajamas,” I answered her.
“Where do I wear them?
I answered, “To bed at night.”
She looked at me, puzzled.
“What do you usually wear to bed?”
I asked her.
“My pants,” she said quietly.
My heart sank. On the subway to work a few weeks later I felt what I can only describe as a “raindrop” fall onto my head and the words PAJAMA PROGRAM spoke to me from it loud and clear. It was at that moment I knew I had found my true purpose in life and it drives me day and night. I thought of nothing else as I continued in my present job, knowing in my heart I was about to jump off that corporate ladder.
Since 2001, Pajama Program has provided over 5 million new pajamas and books to children through 63 local chapters across the United States.
B: What have you learned over the years in growing the Pajama Program?
G: What surprised me 18 years ago is the very thing that still surprises and inspires me every day: How a simple concept – the bedtime experience – connects and bonds us so deeply that it has the power to comfort children at their core and give purpose to our own lives.
I am continually surprised at how we all relate to bedtime on such a profound level. We bond over the stories we tell each other about being tucked in as kids by our mom or dad. Not everyone has those memories, but we can help provide children with a peaceful and loving space to fall asleep in. In so doing, we are certain that a good night will help them have a good day.
“The stories of abuse and neglect were horrifying and heartbreaking. I couldn’t change what had happened to these children but at least I could give them a pair of warm, clean pajamas. ”
I am proud of and humbled by knowing that Pajama Program has helped to give true meaning to bedtime for children affected by instability. It’s not the soft material of the pajamas or pretty pages that tell a delightful story, it’s the comfort, the love and a sense of belonging that these gifts convey. These are the fundamental human connections that are so essential for all children, but especially for children whose lives are unpredictable.
B: You have inspired so many others with your story of how one woman can make a difference. Who inspires you?
G: My mom gave me the kind of bedtime that is missing for so many children. Only I didn’t realize that until I was 38 years old. I knew what I saw at that shelter needed to change for those children to have any chance of knowing they matter in this world, that they have a right to comfort, security and calm as they lay down at night and fall asleep – or try to. Through the years growing Pajama Program, my mother has remained my North Star, reinforcing how vital it is for these children to know someone cares. “They will feel your love, your hug in your pajamas, even if you are invisible to them,” she tells me.
To this day, when I’m feeling low, I cozy up next to my mother, rest my head on her shoulder and let that feeling of love reassure me it’s going to be OK. That’s what I wish all our children had.
B: How can we help the Pajama Program here in North Central Florida?
G: Currently we have 63 volunteer Chapter Presidents across the U.S. In Gainesville, we work directly with our community partners to serve more than 1,200 children here. Our nearest Chapter President is in Ocala, Florida, and we would love to hear from interested individuals in Gainesville to set up a separate chapter here to serve even more children!
Would you like to know more?
To learn more about Pajama Program, visit pajamaprogram.org
To learn more about the Community Foundation of North Central Florida, visit cfncf.org.