The Cradles to Crayons story began in December 2000, during the Christmas vacation, when Lynn Margherio—a Boston-based business and public-policy consultant who had recently spent several years in Washington working with the Clinton administration—was visiting the homes of her brother and sister in Michigan.

One morning, she was helping a young niece get dressed. As she dug through a dresser drawer to find just the right outfit, she saw some tops and bottoms with price tags still on them. There was the never-worn green top—destined to remain folded forever in the drawer because it wasn't pink—and a pair of size 2T pants that reflected her niece's fashion sense (pink), but already were a size too small.

Later on that same trip, she stopped at her brother's house, where she got involved with an arts-and-crafts project with another niece and nephew in their play room. But to get to the table with the glitter, stickers and markers, she had to step over piles of toy trucks, puzzles, and games, and navigate around a plastic kitchen set, an air hockey table, and a train table. (“It looks like our own personal Toys R Us,” she said to herself.) She also noted that despite the profusion of stuff, her niece and nephew tended to gravitate toward one or two favorite toys. The rest were more or less ignored. Later, she saw several unopened presents wind up on the top shelf of a closet.

An idea came to her: What if all of these like-new or never-used children's things could find their way into the homes of other boys and girls—kids who really needed them?

Making it happen in Boston

Back home in Boston, she began taking steps to make that happen. She visited shelters and health centers, asking if they had the resources to help families meet basic needs like clothing. Consistently, the answer was no. Next, she started calling schools and community groups to see if they would be willing collect children's goods. The reaction was almost uniformly positive. So Margherio commandeered some extra office space at the consulting firm where she was a partner, lined the space with shelving and plastic bins from Home Depot, and started going from school to school in a rented truck to collect other people's stuff.

This ad hoc system, mostly invented in real time, slowly gained momentum, and—in 2002—was formally launched as Cradles to Crayons.

A highlight in our recent history came in 2005, when former President Bill Clinton visited the Boston warehouse. In his remarks, Clinton stressed the importance and power of citizen action, calling it “the great hope for our country and the world in the 21st century.”

Making it happen in Philadelphia

In the wake of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Jennifer Case—then taking time off from a successful financial-sector marketing career to focus on her three young children—wondered how she could help the thousands of young children who were evacuated from New Orleans and other devastated cities on the Gulf Coast.

She and her children decided to organize a multi-family tag sale to raise money for displaced families. But when her 30 e-mails to neighbors generated responses from 45 households—half again as many as she had contacted—Case knew she had tapped into a strong current of generosity in her community. “It gave me goose bumps,” she recalls.

Like Margherio before her, Case started wondering how that community energy could be harnessed—and how the torrent of goods coming out of the houses in her suburban neighborhood could be steered toward needy children. Her investigations eventually led her to Cradles to Crayons in Boston, and—in 2006—she cofounded the second C2C operation.

And like her counterparts in Boston, Case has spent countless hours building bridges to social-service partner organizations, volunteer groups, and corporations (who both organize groups of volunteers and—in many cases—donate funds or make in-kind contributions). “It’s about creating opportunities for what we call ‘widespread volunteerism,’” says Case.

Where we are today

Last year, Cradles to Crayons provided, free of charge, packages of clothes, shoes, books, toys, baby safety equipment and school supplies to 87,000 children in Massachusetts and the Philadelphia area.

Working in close partnership with social workers, nurses, teachers, and therapists, Cradles to Crayons has become a trusted resource: to children and families in need; to the organizations who serve those families; and to families, corporations, and individuals who seek ways to make a tangible difference in their own communities.