One small act of kindness influenced Karen Saeks’ childhood. Now she works to change the lives of other children.
Four years ago, Saeks, a registered nurse, and husband, Eddie, a retired surgeon, decided to make Marco Island their home. As a way to keep busy during her retirement and lend a hand in the community, Saeks volunteered as a kindergarten assistant at Manatee Elementary, introducing the children to the computer and helping them with puzzles and books.
“I loved the interaction with the kids,” said Saeks. “It was so much fun.”
Fun soon turned serious when she realized many of them were children of migrants and lived without essentials — food, warm clothing and adequate shelter. And, it was happening right in her own backyard.
Most people are surprised to learn that migrant camps exist just a few miles from our beautiful Marco Island, she said. She learned the children slept on the floor, sometimes with no bedding, in trailers or shacks with broken windows and no hot water.
“They can eat breakfast and lunch at school,” she said, “but lunch is often their last meal until breakfast the next morning.”
Most of them never get enough food to eat, and their parents, who spend long hours in the fields, have little time for nurturing the children.
“We’re talking basics here — warmth, comfort, cleanliness and good hygiene.”
She added that however one feels about immigration policies, these children are innocent victims of circumstance. Not only do they live in deplorable conditions, but the migrant families have practically no possessions, often packing a few items in a plastic grocery bag for the long bus ride to the next camp. Their children most likely have never had a toy or game of their own.
A childhood memory of an anonymous basket of food left on the doorstep to help her struggling single mother feed her family kept intruding in Saeks’ thoughts, and she felt compelled to help these children as someone once helped her.
She took for her model a program sponsored by the Isaac M. Wise Temple in her former home of Cincinnati, Ohio, which provided necessities to children whose mothers checked into an abused women’s shelter. She even decided to adopt the name — Bedtime Bundles — for her new enterprise, but altered the concept to fit the situation in Florida.
Once she had an idea and a name for her plan, Saeks rolled up her sleeves and got to work.
Taking guidance from Carmen Fontdevila, Manatee’s migrant home school liaison, Saeks recruited her husband, Eddie, and friend Bonnie Woodward to help, and she established a new Bedtime Bundles.
The name refers to a pillowcase packed with age-appropriate bedtime necessities, like pajamas, toothpaste, towels and shampoo. So far, over 350 bundles have been placed in children’s arms since the beginning of the program.
Bonnie Woodward stresses that these children are caught in the middle.
“The kids are so happy when they get the bundles that they hug them,” said Woodward.
She said some Marco Islanders have even gotten their children and grandchildren involved in the project. They shop together, then let the kids fill the pillowcases. “It teaches children that there are those not as lucky as they are. They learn the art of giving.”
Saeks recently filed for non-profit, 501 (c) (3) tax exempt status, and once that’s in place, corporations are more likely to get involved, and the program can grow on a larger scale, reaching out to even more children. Up to this point, the charity has been grass-roots based, relying on donations of kind-hearted individuals. There’s a continual need for new bundles, she said, with migrants constantly on the move, it’s an ever changing population.
If you’ve lived on Marco Island for any length of time, you’ve probably heard of Karen Saeks. Honored as the 2007 Migrant Volunteer of the Year, and the MICA Humanitarian of 2008, she said she’s proud of the awards and grateful to be recognized, but added that any organization is only as good as the people who support it. She applauds her board of directors and the long list of professionals serving on her advisory committee, and said they have big plans for the future.
“We’ve had a tremendous response,” she said, “but it has to go beyond Marco Island to Naples and Fort Myers. I’d love for it to go national, since the need is no longer confined to Florida, Texas and California.”
To further that goal, Saeks welcomes invitations for speaking engagements and is always happy to answer questions. If one wants to donate a bundle, she requests that every item listed be included, changed only slightly to be age appropriate. No perishables should be added, but if a person chooses to make separate gifts of food or items not on the list, her volunteers will be happy to distribute them.
If residents don’t have time to shop, cash or gift certificate donations are much appreciated, and as little as $35 will fill one bundle. She points out that the need is great and no gift is too small.
Any item listed can be donated in bulk or as a single contribution. Take them to a drop off point, fill out a form listing items donated, and Bedtime Bundles volunteers will take care of the rest.
Not only does Karen Saeks fill pillowcases with necessities, at the same time she fills small hearts with joy.
“A good thing about Bedtime Bundles,” she said, “is that they go directly to the children.”
And a good thing about Marco Island is Karen Saeks.
How to make a Bedtime Bundle
Fill a new (or gently used) pillowcase with the following new (or gently used) items for infants through 17 years of age. Tie closed with a ribbon or shoe string. (Nothing goes to waste.) Forms to indicate to which age the bundle is intended are available at drop off points.
Diapers or pull-ups, baby wipes, powder, diaper rash ointment
Toothbrush and toothpaste
Soap and shampoo
Wash cloth and bath towel
Sweatshirt or sweater
Blanket or throw
Book, toy or stuffed animal
Drop off points:
Marco Island Civic Association, 1770 San Marco Road, Suite 204, Marco Island 34145
M&I Bank, 800 N. Collier Boulevard, Suite 109, Marco Island 34145
To arrange for pickup at your home, business or organization, contact Karen Saeks.
Gift certificates from Publix, Winn Dixie, CVS, Walgreens, Target, K-Mart and Wal-Mart are most helpful, or send checks to Bedtime Bundles, Inc., 1061 South Collier Blvd., #501, Marco Island, FL 34145-8439.
If you’re interested in having Karen Saeks speak to your professional or neighborhood organization, contact her at 398-5179 or at Karen@bedtimebundles.org