As foster parents, Danielle Gletow and her husband, Joe, saw first-hand the challenges the children in the system face on a daily basis. These children didn’t just need the love and stability of a forever home, many of them also needed the basic comforts that most of us take for granted.
And it’s those simple needs of the nearly 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system that Gletow’s organization, One Simple Wish, is trying to meet. The nonprofit allows people to make “a direct difference in the lives of foster children and vulnerable families” through small, online donations that fulfill the “wishes” of these kids, which range from toys to school supplies.
“After we had fostered for a year, it was evident that there were gaps in the system,” Gletow says. “We’d have children who were brought to us, many times with what the [social worker] could grab from the home. We thought, these are kids entering a very serious time in their life, and they’re not fully prepared.”
Soon after she and her husband welcomed 3-day-old Mia (who they later adopted) into their home, Gletow discovered she was pregnant, so the couple decided they would close their home to fostering. In turn, Gletow decided to open the country’s eyes to plights of foster kids. “That’s when I decided to do a business plan for One Simple Wish, to connect these people who wanted to help the kids without having to go through the foster care system,” she says. “The idea was to tell people the stories of the children and not the statistics. Because the statistics are overwhelming and often make it seem like there is no way to make a difference. We wanted people to feel like even if they only had $25, they knew the money was doing something.”
A marketer by profession, Gletow spent her days at an agency and her nights working on her idea—while juggling a new baby and a pregnancy. She incorporated One Simple Wish in 2008, when her youngest was 2 months old and her oldest 10 months old.
But even though she had the passion and drive, Gletow faced myriad hurdles in trying to make her idea a reality. One of her earliest challenges was navigating the local nonprofit community. “A lot of these agencies didn’t take me seriously in the beginning. They wouldn’t talk to me, or they’d say things like ‘I don’t really see how you’re going to get people to give you money that way.’”
The other challenge was getting exposure for her nascent nonprofit—the Gletows had invested their savings in launching One Simple Wish and had no budget for advertising. “It’s a catch-22. You have to do something to get noticed to get funding, but in order to do something you need more funding.”
Gletow did get noticed, and the foundation started to catch on virally. “The idea that you could help an individual and that there was this one-to-one personal connection between the donors and the kids, that caught on quickly,” she says. “Suddenly, we didn’t know the people who were granting the wishes. That’s when the media caught on.”
In September 2012, a New Jersey reporter wrote a story on Gletow and One Simple Wish for the Christian Science Monitor’s “Difference Maker” section. NBC Nightly News saw it and contacted her, asking if they could feature her story on Brian Williams’ “Making a Difference” segment. A few months later, Gletow was nominated as a CNN “Hero,” and in October 2013 she learned she had made it to the top 10. The media spotlight, she says, changed everything.
“After we aired on NBC, we did $225,000 in just the few weeks after, which was twice the total of what we brought in the year before,” she says. “The site crashed. We were answering 200 emails an hour. You could see people were embracing this program.”
The attention also forced Gletow to re-think her organization structure. Prior to her NBC coverage, she was the only full-time employee, supported by a part-time program coordinator. So they added more staff and re-configured the website to better handle the traffic. “The national media spotlight changed the dynamic. We’re reaching more kids. We’re reaching more agencies,” she says. “When agencies see we were on CNN and NBC, and it adds credibility to our work. I’m finding a lot of those organizations who wouldn’t talk to us before are really interested in talking to us now.”
Gletow works around the clock to ensure that the children in and who’ve aged out of foster care feel support the way her daughters do. “I started this because I’m a mom, and I saw kids without a mom, and I wanted to help. I wanted to show them that someone out there cares,” she says. “It is personal. This isn’t a business. This isn’t a job or work. This is my mission in life.”