By Barbara Van Reed
In the case of Massachusetts “first lady” Lauren Baker, you crisscross the state to enlist community partners for Wonderfund, a private non-profit dedicated exclusively to serving the 53,000 children engaged with the Department of Children and Families (DCF).
Mrs. Baker met with members of the Discover Central Mass executive board last month to promote Wonderfund, the charity she spearheaded after husband Charlie became governor in 2015.
The “first lady” in Massachusetts doesn’t have a title, an office, or staff, she explained, and that gave her the “opportunity to create my own platform.”
Mrs. Baker said her background in marketing and advertising, along with her passion for helping kids, inspired her to find an existing organization that she could “scale.” She discovered the DCF Kids Fund project, which had been raising private donations to give abused and neglected DCF kids a gift at Christmastime for 17 years.
Scaling the small organization to provide many more services year-round meant taking it apart and rebuilding it. The restructured, greatly expanded DCF Kids Fund was renamed Wonderfund and was officially launched in June 2017. Erin Murphy Rafferty came on as its CEO. Ms. Rafferty had been the COO for Boston 2024 Olympics, was president of the US Ireland Business Partnership, and served on the management team of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
Wonderfund is a unique partnership between a private non-profit and a public agency, giving the organization access to foster families and DCF front-line social workers. Each of the 29 DCF offices in the state has a liaison who conveys Wonderfund program information to DCF staff and in turn communicates individual requests to Wonderfund.
Mrs. Baker described the organization’s two main goals.
The first is to provide emergency resources to children who are removed from an unsafe home and taken into foster care. Often the child’s belongings are “stuffed in a trash bag,” adding to the trauma of the situation. In the last year, Wonderfund supplied all 6,500 children who were removed from their homes with a new duffel bag filled with clothes, hygiene supplies, other necessities, and gift cards, things that they might need in the first 24-48 hours.
The second goal is to provide enrichment opportunities for each of the more than 50,000 Massachusetts children who are engaged with DCF every year because of trauma or neglect, including the 10,000 currently in foster care. “We help with everything, from big things to little things, to give meaningful moments to kids that have tough situations in their lives.”
A “small” thing might be giving a young boy a baseball glove so that he can play in Little League. A “big” thing might be the opportunity for a gifted student to attend a two-week academic summer program at Stanford. Wonderfund sends kids to summer camp, supports SAT prep, driver’s ed, tutoring, job training, athletic lessons and equipment, art and music instruction, and much more.
One of the first organizations to partner with Wonderfund was the Museum of Science. More than 2,200 families have signed up for a free membership. Other “large-scale” enrichment opportunities that Mrs. Baker has orchestrated was a Boston Harbor Cruise for 1,000 kids and attendance at a Taylor Swift concert for 2,000 children, who came from all over the state.
Major sponsors for Wonderfund include the Red Sox Foundation, Kraft Family Foundation, and Rockland Trust Bank.
DCF offices have directly benefitted from the private agency’s generosity as well. Wonderfund has provided the funds to update and upgrade some of the family visiting rooms located in each DCF office, to make them a more pleasant, friendly place for supervised visits.
Mrs. Baker acknowledged that raising support and funds for the charity has been a full-time job. Currently she and Ms. Rafferty are meeting with potential community partners across the state. Specifically, they are looking for partnerships with youth recreation groups, camps, sports leagues, cultural councils, museums, any organization that offers childhood enrichment programs.
Discover Central Mass, southern Worcester County’s tourism agency, has dozens of members who fall into those categories. Mrs. Baker clearly has her marketing hat on.
Monetary donations from local business and individuals are highly valued too.