While many of us were cursing Google classroom and wrestling with ring lights during the pandemic, Natick’s Catherine Maloy, a mom of two elementary-schoolers, founded Cocotree Kids to distribute underwear to at-risk Massachusetts children.
“Underwear is one of the most-needed items for youth and families experiencing financial hardship, but it’s very rarely donated because it needs to be new. That’s the disconnect: You’re trying to unload clothing that’s in good condition that your kids no longer fit in, and you can’t donate their underwear,” Maloy says.
This basic need is especially acute as summer approaches.
“Kids can’t really layer their clothing the same way you can in the winter and hide the issue,” she says.
Cocotree focuses on underwear alone, and it hopes to expand beyond Massachusetts soon. As of now, Cocotree Kids reaches kids ages 2 to 16 through a network of homeless shelters, schools, food pantries, clinics, and social services organizations that support disadvantaged youth: Cradles to Crayons, Catie’s Closet, The Wish Project, Jewish Family Services, and many more.
These organizations request specific sizes and quantities; Maloy then purchases underwear below retail cost thanks to partnerships with several underwear manufacturers and wholesalers, plus as in-kind donations from brands such as Lucky & Me and Primary.com. Each child receives seven pairs of underwear each month. In 2022, Cocotree distributed 30,000 pairs of underwear to 4,200 kids. This year, she estimates that they’ll distribute 90,000 pairs.
As someone who’s had a bag of gently used kids’ clothes rattling around in my trunk for months, I was curious how Maloy, then a full-time human resources manager at Deloitte, actually launched a nonprofit during COVID.
“Like many people, I was working full time with my kids at home. You see images of need and grief, and you feel helpless. I wanted to help in a very specific way. So I made phone calls to the local food pantries and social service organizations here in Natick: What do you need?” she says. “I carved out the time because I needed something that I had control over, to make me feel that I was contributing to a solution to try to make things better.”
Over and over again, organizations told her: What we really need is underwear. A conversation with the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless sealed the deal.
“I was told, ‘The need is massive and ongoing, especially for children,’” she says. The coalition agreed to fiscally sponsor Cocotree at its launch, while Maloy began collecting donations from friends and neighbors and distributing them to organizations in person.
“I just stacked underwear in my hallway and in the basement and drove it around with my kids in the car,” she says.
Maloy transitioned to working part time and eventually began focusing on Cocotree full time, with a staff of volunteers. Real talk: Quitting a full-time job to launch a charity isn’t simple, and she needed her husband, Owen, to buy-in.
“I had to pull some levers at home to make this happen,” she admits. “Going from two incomes to one is a big deal. We’re in the process of applying for grants, and we’re trying to obtain institutional finding. And we’ve been successful.”
A recent $25,000 prize from the Greg Hill Foundation thanks to a HarborOne Bank pitch contest helped.
“We’re pounding the pavement trying to get the word out there. We’re not hosting galas and spending what little money we have on fund-raising,” Maloy says.
She hopes more parents will get involved with their kids: hosting donation parties, helping to pack donations for distribution, or raising money to help the organization purchase more underwear at wholesale rates. (Visit www.cocotreekids.org/how-to-help for a list of volunteer opportunities.)
“Our mission is about more than just underwear. It boils down to empathy. The simple concept of collecting underwear for kids causes this light bulb to go off and reveals major but overlooked challenges that many children experiencing poverty and other difficulties [face]. It sparks a conversation about the everyday things that we take for granted,” she says.