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The Extraordinary Backstory of Genevieve Piturro, Founder of Pajama Program

“The abandonment, abuse and separation so many children experience is so unfair, so unjust. It isn’t their fault. I’d look at their faces and I swore I felt their pain at being left behind, forgotten by a mother and father who were somewhere out there in the world. I seemed to share what I believed they were feeling: “One day someone will come back for me.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Genevieve Piturro, founder of Pajama Program, a national nonprofit organization which 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. Genevieve Piturro founded Pajama Program in 2001.

Yitzi: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

My background is in marketing, first in the television syndication arena for many years and then for an event planning company with offices in London and NYC. I am a professional speaker, and a contributing IMPACT blogger for Huffington Post. I am currently writing a book, The Pajama Story, about Pajama Program and my personal journey to find my purpose. I am a founding board member of the Spirit of Hope Scholarship Foundation, a non-profit inspired by Pajama Program which offers college scholarships to High School seniors in foster care. I have a Bachelor’s of Art Degree from Fordham University and reside in Irvington, N.Y. with my husband, Demo DiMartile.

Contrary to many entrepreneurs’ stories, I loved my career climbing the corporate ladder in marketing. I graduated Fordham University in 1983 and began working for television syndication companies in New York City. I always knew I wanted to work behind the scenes in the entertainment business and that’s what I did for the next 25 years — I was V.P. of Marketing for TV syndication companies. But as time went on and years past, I realized that I was working to make other people richer and happier. I wasn’t really “helping” anyone who needed help. I didn’t have my own family and I didn’t know why. I was 37 and single and my life was simple.

I had everything — family, friends, travel for business and pleasure, nice things. I thought that was all I needed. I met my husband Demo at age 38 and together we planned a life — he didn’t have children either and as this was a first marriage for both of us, we thought we were free and clear of any struggles or challenges. In 2000 I shared my growing discontent about my career with my husband and he quickly encouraged me to think about finding a way to feel more fulfilled. We agreed that I would read to children in shelters at night. I did and that’s when I met the little girl in my story below.

The moment that changed my life…

In 2000 I visited a Center in Harlem for children with no fathers and whose mothers were in prison. My intention was to read with them in the evening, after my work day. 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 heart breaking. 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 ladder.

I told everyone to give me new pajamas…for my birthday, anniversary…Christmas…and I gave them to the children. How incredible when my friends came with me! I knew what was happening…my excitement for my career was waning and I was feeling a new swell in my heart…for these children who needed pajamas and a book for bedtime.

Since 2001, Pajama Program has provided over 5 million new pajamas and books to children through 60 local chapters across the United States.

Yitzi: Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

We have long wanted to find a way to help the children we serve sleep peacefully through the night. Over the years we have spoken with doctors and nurses who tell us how important bedtime is, especially for these children, and how bedtime sets the scene for their sleep time. We are now focusing on our National Expansion and how we can have a greater impact on the children we serve and contribute to the good night sleep they so desperately need. We know “A Good Night is a Good Day” and we will be working with experts in the field of sleep and pediatric care to learn how we can be a part of the solution for these children who have gone too long without a restful night. Trauma, abuse, fear, anxiety, abandonment, separation, isolation and loneliness are just some of what the children we serve are dealing with. Bedtime is such a vulnerable time for them and we need to learn how we can work with their families and caregivers to help.

Yitzi: So tell me a bit more about your organization?

Pajama Program is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, which 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. Its mission is to support the completion of the 24-hour Good Day Loop for all children. Pajama Program offers at-risk children, often abandoned, abused and neglected, and living in group homes, shelters and temporary housing, the unconditional, magical gifts of 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. To date, we have collected and distributed over 5 million pairs of pajamas and books to children and teens across the United States through 60 local chapters and four (4) Pajama Program Reading Centers across the United States.

Yitzi: This obviously is not easy work. What drives you?

The answer to the above 2 questions are the stories of the children I meet and the situations they are in.

The abandonment, abuse and separation so many children experience is so unfair, so unjust. It isn’t their fault. I’d look at their faces and I swore I felt their pain at being left behind, forgotten by a mother and father who were somewhere out there in the world. I seemed to share what I believed they were feeling: “One day someone will come back for me.”

When the children receive their pajamas, they always want to put them on right away, even if it is noon. They want to put them on because they are so warm and clean and they fit. When they get a book, sometimes they ask, “When do I have to give it back?” I tell them it is theirs forever. And then I turn away so they don’t see me fight to hold back my tears.

I hear so many stories. Heart wrenching stories, like the one about five-year old Joshua who, when we delivered pajamas and books to his temporary shelter, smuggled armfuls of size 3 girls’ pajamas under his bed. Why? Because his mother repeatedly burned his little sister with her cigarettes until someone finally came and took them out of her care. His sister was in the ICU and he wanted to make sure she got enough warm pajamas.

There was another child whose bright spirit touched me immediately. This little girl, Isabella, recognized me at one of our reading events and remembered that I’d visited her group home with pajamas in the past. Her eyes lit up and she asked me if I would visit again and bring her more pajamas. I thought to myself, “How is it possible that this little girl is without a mom or dad to tuck her into bed at night?”

She looked up and me and added, “When you bring pajamas will you bring me some shoes too?”

She tugged at my heart and I promised her another visit with special pajamas.

“Please don’t forget me,” she added.

How could I? How could anyone?

Finally, there is the story of a little boy named Roy who I read to every week. It was a Friday, and on Fridays some of the kids at group homes are fortunate enough to have a member of their family take them “home” for a weekend once in a while. This particular Friday a seven-year-old boy named Ronny was going home to his aunt’s for a weekend visit and he was thrilled.

Sitting beside me was Roy who shared the same cottage with Ronny. Roy and I were reading about bears when everyone heard Ronny’s voice as he screamed, “I’m going home now!” and scooped up his stuff and headed into the waiting car.

Without saying a word, Roy leaned closer to me, put his arms around me and gave me a big hug and a kiss on my cheek. I held him for as long as I could. My eyes watered and I wished he were going “home” too, even if it would only be for a weekend. I guess at that moment I was the closest thing to home for him.

Yitzi: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

There are three people, not just one!

1. My mom gave me the kind of bedtime, that I realized when I was age 38 years old, was missing for so many children. 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, even if you are invisible to them,” she tells me.

2. From day one, my husband told me to go after my purpose and we’d find a way to make ends meet. To this day he is our biggest cheerleader, even when he knows every financial tight spot Pajama Program have been through and that every day we continue to grow stronger, he believed in us.

3. Oprah Winfrey — when I was a guest on her show in 2007, right about the time of the recession, she and her audience gave us the boost that kept us going. I will always be personally grateful to her.

Yitzi: What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.

1. You will become extremely vulnerable as you explore your reasons for starting your nonprofit. You have to be willing to delve deep, no matter how painful, and examine your flaws, your strengths. You need to figure out what motivates you, what buoys you, and what takes you down.

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My fears had to be kept at bay and I learned to look for silver linings in my disappointments, not always easy. There was another shift that I struggled with greatly: letting go of the belief that there were “things” I not only wanted, but thought I needed.

When I was working in marketing I was fulfilled because my hard work paid off and I could buy whatever I wanted, go wherever I wanted to go, and carve out exactly the kind of life I’d always envied of others. I know I wasn’t alone in those thoughts. Climbing the corporate ladder, I met many women — and men — who shared my dreams and methods of attaining every one of them.

We’ve all witnessed what I’m talking about — it’s very common. Once we’re on that road of “How much can I get for myself?” it’s extremely difficult to get off it. I began to see that the more I had, the more I wanted. All that “stuff” was cluttering my mind as well as my physical space. I saw that I was relying on these items to give meaning to my life. Those “things” had been my success markers; they were what made me happy and confident.

How would I be able to reconcile that loss? What would replace all the stuff I wanted if I couldn’t have it? What would the absence of this stuff mean for my success, my hard work and my self-esteem? These were daunting questions and they forced me to re-think my priorities and more importantly, my attitude. I knew I had to make hard choices and I was ashamed that I was making them at such a late stage in my life. I would have to let go of the desire I knew lived deep in me — my wish to fit in, to belong to a growing group of work-a-holics I helped to create.

That realization was part of what led me to know I had to make Pajama Program happen.

2. You may be surprised by who supports you — and who doesn’t

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How could I let my family and friends in on my secret thoughts when I didn’t even know what I was thinking? I was afraid I would ramble on like an idiot, sinking any chance I might have of getting their support, let alone enthusiasm.

I’m re-thinking my career… I haven’t been feeling fulfilled… Something is missing in my life… I need to find my purpose… I think I found it giving a little girl pajamas.

Ugh. It sounded like I was reading too many self-help books on the way to a mental breakdown. I shuddered at any of the words I might manage to summon. All I could picture were blank faces, people who had previously thought I had good sense now looking at me like I had three heads, not one of which had a functioning brain.

No matter how I phrased it, it was all going to boil down to the only thing they would be able to hear: “I’m thinking of throwing away everything I’ve achieved in my career to walk around giving kids pajamas and books… And I have no idea how I will make enough money to eat.”

Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed some support, some encouragement from the people who’d known me longest, who knew me best. I decided to try my pitch out on a friend first — not a close friend, but a friend unrelated to my career or family. This way I would be safe. She couldn’t spread the word amongst my colleagues that I was even contemplating jumping ship, and she wouldn’t know anyone in my family to call to let them know I was teetering on the edge of throwing everything away. I would try out my pitch on her and see what her response would be.

I crafted what I thought were a few compassionate, thoughtful and succinct sentences to let her know what I was thinking. One evening over drinks, I casually let her in on my thoughts. I was holding my breath but trying to act indifferent as I sipped my red wine, avoiding eye contact while feeling I was laying my heart out on the table.

Her reaction? She took all of two seconds to say, “Why on earth would you drop your career for this?” I was crushed. Her look was anything but understanding, and I knew this conversation needed to end before I lost my temper or worse, melted into tears.

In that moment, every negative thought I had ever had, every single doubt, came crashing down on me. My heart was pounding, and I had to fight the urge to flee the table, to stalk out of the restaurant without a word. What was I thinking? Was this going to be everyone’s reaction? Was I being stupid and naïve? Was I out of my mind? Should I stop all this nonsense now and chalk it up to a fairy-tale idea, something to think about if, and only if, I won the lottery? I was shaking on the inside and probably on the outside too. But my friend didn’t flinch, so I guess my acting was good.

“Was just thinking about it, that’s all,” I said nonchalantly.

All I remember now is making an excuse for getting out of the dinner that was supposed to follow our cocktails. I was a hotbed of emotions. Furious at her. Annoyed that she didn’t “get it.” Devastated that her first response wasn’t, “Wow, what a brilliant idea — count me in!” Heartbroken that she didn’t immediately care about these children like I did. But mostly just confused and panicked about leaving my safety net for some crazy idea that I was willing to give up everything for. What if my little pajama charity never gained traction? Then where would I be?

I kissed her goodbye and our friendship dissipated soon after. I was distraught, but I remember Demo trying to enlighten me. He told me, over and over, “It’s your purpose. You cannot give up your purpose based on someone else’s opinion. You have to trust yourself.”

3. You need an attorney and an accountant and a Board of Directors

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I knew the first order of business was to get to the bottom of this whole “501c3” thing people started asking me about.

I figured an attorney needed to be involved but I didn’t know a single lawyer personally. However one morning before I left the house I looked at my husband, Demo, raised my fist and boldly announced, “I NEED TO FIND AN ATTORNEY.”

He just smiled, as he often does. “Then go get one.”

Later that morning I got off the train, walked to my corner coffee guy for my daily brew and waited on the corner for the light to change. Someone tapped me on my shoulder. “Genevieve?” a dark-haired man said. “Remember me?”

I didn’t.

“I’m Mary’s friend, Santiago? We met a few years ago?”

Of course! Now I remembered Santiago! And I also remembered that he was an attorney! Let me tell you, Fate can be a beautiful thing. So can a fist full of fortitude.

We set a time to catch up and the next day, into his office I walked. After two minutes of pleasantries, I told him I needed a free or dirt cheap attorney. I told him why. Ever obliging, ever understanding, Santiago gladly provided me with some names and numbers.

One of them, Karen, was a lovely woman who said she’d be happy to meet with me. I was excited and nervous. Where to start? I sat and listened to her tell me what a 501c3 was and what I’d need to do to get one. A 501c3 from the US Government would give us not only tax-free status, but legitimacy as a charity — it lets everyone know we have been vetted and their donations are tax deductible. Essentially, what I had to do was this: I had to write up the rationale for Pajama Program, get some testimonials from people who benefitted from it, prove there was a need, and list my Board of Directors.

“Board of Directors? How many?” I asked her.

“A minimum of three,” she said.

Okay, that was easy. I signed up me, my husband and my friend Alice — and that was our first Board!

“Oh, and get yourself a good accountant. You’ll need a budget,” Karen added.

4. Learn to meditate and ask the universe for guidance

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Often my brain was spinning out of control with ideas, possibilities and doubts and all I heard inside my head was just plain noise. I couldn’t hear myself think — the mix of exuberance and anxiety was just too much and it’s a wonder I got anything accomplished in that state. With my husband’s help I learned how to meditate. It wasn’t easy but I spent my 25 minutes on the train every morning sitting silently, practicing how to keep my mind empty and open in order to attract clear thoughts and guidance I could actually hear. Then, I would repeat words to myself like, “Please tell me what my purpose is, please show me, what I am supposed to be doing? Is this what my life is supposed to be about? Pajamas and children’s books? Is my current life wrong? Where do I go from here? I need guidance, please show me my purpose.”

Nothing.

Weeks went by. Still nothing.

Then, the moment came.

I was on a subway going downtown one afternoon for a work meeting and, sure as the sky is blue, what felt like a raindrop “plopped” onto the top of my head. And I heard the words “Pajama Program.” It was subtle, yet definitely pronounced. It sounded like my voice but gentler, whisper-like, as if it came from far away.

Then I had an absolutely crystal clear vision of those words on a sign, hanging above my head. The two words, “Pajama Program” were in soft, cloud-like lettering, almost like the bubble letters we used to write our names in in grammar school. In my mind now, I was smiling, laughing, sitting with two or three children in my lap, handing out pajamas, and there was a line of children in front of me that stretched for miles and miles.

It reminded me of a scene in the Wizard of Oz, one of my favorite movies to watch with my mom when I was little. All these smiling kids were lined up on the yellow brick road, waiting for their brightly-colored pajamas. I laughed out loud at my vision, thinking it was surreal. But my heart was full — this was real. And it wouldn’t just be me, alone.

5. Just because it’s your passion doesn’t mean it’s easy

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Whenever I tried to get my head around actually making a plan of action for my newfound life’s purpose, my thoughts, feelings, even my body, seemed to go to war. My stomach would churn acid. My throat would close up, making it hard to swallow. I felt confused and scared to death. Hundreds of emotions bombarded me. Even the words in my brain weren’t connecting, it was as if my vocabulary had come unhinged. I had absolutely no idea how I would make the change from my “climbing the corporate ladder career” to this new endeavor.

Whenever I tried to get my head around making a plan, it seemed like my thoughts were at war. I felt confused and scared to death. Hundreds of emotions bombarded me. The words in my brain weren’t connecting, it was as if they were unhinged.

I wanted desperately to put my feet firmly on the ground and know what I was doing. I am an organized person used to moving in the direction I set for myself on any given project, and this feeling of being unorganized, incapable, and downright dizzy left me extremely uncomfortable in my skin. I worried I would expend so much of my energy in a million directions that it would end up being a waste: I would’ve done absolutely nothing to make a difference, certainly nothing I could be proud of.

I was uncertain how it could all work out long-term. Mostly I kept asking myself, “Is there something more to this?” “How is it all supposed to come together?” I didn’t know how to mold it into a “something.”

And then something strange happened while I slept. I had started having dreams of being in cars, but never being in the driver’s seat. I realized why. I wasn’t in charge yet, I wasn’t leading it yet. It was becoming more and more clear; I realized I simply wasn’t taking control of my own life. When I realized I had to take the wheel, I knew things were going to change forever.

Yitzi: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see just see this. :-)

Our national grassroots community support along with donors who fund vital and innovative child welfare programs are equally important for our future growth. There are two (2) people I’d love to meet regarding Pajama Program:

Susan A. Buffett and her family’s organization Buffett Early Childhood Fund supports Educare and two policy initiatives: the Alliance for Early Success and the First Five Years Fund. I would like to meet Ms. Buffett as she may be interested in our research and work to educate ourselves and then educate caregivers and families on how to support early-age bedtime and sleep patterns in order to ensure A Good Night is a Good Day for the special children we serve.

I can see Ellen Degeneres dancing in her pajamas on her show, helping us spread the word about the children we serve and the bedtime, good night and good day every single one of them have a right to.

Thank you, Yitzi, for listening, reading, and helping us spread the word about our work for these children.

The Pajama Program can be contacted on social media at:

https://www.facebook.com/PajamaProgram

https://twitter.com/pajamaprogram

https://www.instagram.com/pajama.program/

https://www.linkedin.com/company/pajama-program/

https://twitter.com/GenevievePajama