Genevieve Piturro: How Pajama Program’s Founder Turns Good Nights Into Good Days

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Some time ago while standing in line at Carter’s, I spotted a sign at the register requesting donations. I placed my armful of baby rompers and onesies aside to read it. Carters was collecting donations for an organization it sponsored called “Pajama Program,” which supports a comforting bedtime routine for children at-risk by providing them with new pajamas and storybooks.

I was immediately intrigued by the idea and made a donation when I reached the register. As a mother, the idea of any child going to sleep without a warm, comfortable pair of jammies was unfathomable to me. But as a children’s social worker, I knew this was very much a reality for many kids, and I was eager to learn more about the organization which aims to ease some of their hardship.

I began researching Pajama Program and learned how they serve children and teens living in homeless shelters, foster care, or in dire situations across the country. I came upon an episode of Oprah in which the talk show queen interviewed Pajama Program’s founder, Genevieve Piturro. I watched as Piturro described the simple but profound philosophy of Pajama Program with such energy and passion.

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Genevieve Piturro with Oprah Winfrey and 32,000 pairs of pajamas in 2007

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Genevieve Piturro, and was instantly impressed with this dynamic, strong woman. Genevieve’s personality is as warm and inviting as the pajamas for which she is known. She is compassionate and genuine and has a way of making you feel as if you’ve known her all your life. Her personal journey and the incredible growth of her charity are truly inspiring, and I’m honored to share her amazing story here.

Genevieve Piturro grew up in Yonkers, New York with three siblings, her mother, and her father, who emigrated to the United States from Italy. She was a bright young girl who loved reading and went on to earn her Bachelor’s from Fordham University.

By the time she was in her late thirties, Piturro was a single, hard-working New Yorker, climbing the corporate ladder in her field of television syndication marketing. But her traditional Italian parents expected their first-born daughter wanted to get married and have children. The idea didn’t seem exciting to Genevieve at that time. “I always knew I had an independent streak,” she explained. “I just wanted to climb the corporate ladder, like Mary Tyler Moore.”

Piturro continued the climb. She went about her routine, going to work everyday, never really giving other plans a second thought. Until she reached a point in 1999 when she, too, questioned if she was fulfilled.

“One day, I stopped and asked myself, ‘If this is the next 30 years, is this enough?’ ”

“I missed the boat,” she recalled thinking.

Around this time, Piturro met and married her husband, who encouraged her to find her calling. Although she didn’t have children of her own, the doting aunt knew the love she felt for young people and how she felt drawn to them. “I knew there were other ways to bring children into my life,” she remembered thinking.

So she decided to volunteer some time working with kids. Piturro began visiting a homeless shelter in New York City one night a week and read books to the children who were staying there. “I didn’t know what to expect,” she told me of her first visit. But it wasn’t long before she felt connected to the children, whose mothers were in prison. The soothing stories provided much-needed mental rest to children who were burdened with thoughts of their trying days.

“The nighttime for these children makes such a big difference for not only how they sleep, but for how they wake up and face the day.”

One night after reading to the kids, Piturro gathered her things and prepared to head home. She turned to look at the children before they went to sleep, and saw the shelter staff members — not cozily tucking in — but helping the kids onto the “surfaces” where they slept, without even changing out of their street clothes.

And that was the moment.

“I was flooded with memories of my mother I hadn’t thought about in 38 years,” Piturro told me. “My siblings and I would sit on the bed in our pajamas and my mother would make up these great stories before tucking us in.”

Suddenly, the sweet tales of personified peanuts in chocolate bars her mom lovingly imagined for her decades ago now had profound meaning to Piturro.

The cozy bedtime routine of being safely tucked in by a loved one was totally missing for these children. But more shockingly, so were their pajamas.

When Piturro noticed that the children were sleeping in their street clothes, she approached a staff member and asked if she could bring them some pajamas on her next visit. The worker expressed great appreciation at the offer, since pajamas were not among the typical donations the shelter received.

Piturro vividly recalls handing out her donated pajamas to the children on her next reading visit. This simple gift had a profound impact — on both the kids and on herself  — that would soon change everything.

Piturro’s most significant memory of that night was a brief conversation she had with a perplexed young girl.

“One little girl took the pajamas and said to me, ‘What are these?’ ”

“They’re pajamas,” Piturro told her. “You wear them to sleep,” she continued.

“What do you usually wear to sleep?” she asked the little girl.

“My pants,” the little girl replied softly.

And with that heart-wrenching dose of reality on that night, in a very small way, Genevieve’s Pajama Program was born. While it didn’t take formation for quite some time, her personal mission to improve the nights of these innocent children began with this simple act.

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Piturro continued her weekly reading visits to the shelters, but now she had another project to add to her routine. She began collecting new pajama donations from friends and family and distributed them to children at local shelters. She carried on this project independently for two years, while still working as a marketing executive. Then, in 2001, Pajama Program was formed as a 501c(3) nonprofit organization and Piturro left her job to focus on her dream full-time.

Although it was official, the newly formed charity had virtually no money and was not yet on the map. But despite the formidable tasks ahead of her, Genevieve had clear goals for Pajama Program’s work. A poem her husband wrote to inspire her became Genevieve’s “personal mission statement,” and eventually the foundation of the organization’s mission. Pajama Program began to spread its message about the importance of pajamas and books, but also about the value of a healthy, loving nighttime routine for all children to ease the stress they feel during the day. “The nighttime for these children makes such a big difference for not only how they sleep, but for how they wake up and face the day,” Genevieve eloquently explained to me.

No, this is not just another charity collecting clothes for the needy. Pajama Program works to improve the physical and psychological well-being of children, and strives to educate our communities about the long-term benefits of a safe and nurturing night. As their trademark tag line reminds: “Good nights are good days.”

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Although Pajama Program was still a new charity, Piturro worked tirelessly to spread her message as much as possible. When Parents magazine ran a feature on Pajama Program right after 9/11, the response was remarkable. Americans were yearning to help each other — especially a charity based in New York City — and the growth Pajama Program experienced from that recognition jumpstarted its success. Soon, the organization was reaching New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, providing both new pajamas and new books to children in need of a peaceful night’s sleep.

Piturro began to acquire sponsorships and support from businesses through tireless dedication. “I wrote to everybody under the sun,” she joked. Her positive outlook clearly helped motivate her success. “I feel the universe is such a big part in all of our lives,” she told me. “Especially if we find a purpose to do some good.”

Piturro’s dreams of growing Pajama Program became realized when she appeared on Oprah in 2007. In true Oprah fashion, the philanthropic host ended her interview with an incredible surprise for Genevieve. The show’s producers had coordinated with the studio audience members ahead of time and everyone came to the taping with pajama donations. When Oprah explained this secret to Piturro, she revealed the total number of pajamas that had been collected: more than 32,000!

In a classic Oprah show moment, stage hands and producers rolled out onto the set huge bins filled with tens of thousands of children’s pajamas. Piturro screamed with delight and the audience cheered at their accomplishment.

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Oprah Winfrey surprises Genevieve Piturro with more than 32,000 pairs of pajamas. Photo courtesy of ABC.

Oprah’s coverage catapulted Pajama Program to new heights. After the show, thousands of emails poured in from all over the world with people — including soldiers on Army bases — reaching out to ask how they could help. The amount of volunteer chapters nationwide soon jumped to 30, and Pajama Program began serving every state, even if by mail from New York City when necessary.

Genevieve’s incredible warmth and approachable personality make her the perfect nurturer for this important organization. So in 2017, she decided to focus her strengths on outreach, press, and speaking engagements and appoint a new Executive Director. “I did 16 years behind the desk and I missed talking to people,” she explained. Piturro is now the face of Pajama Program and the leader of the national expansion.

Jamie Dyce, an attorney who is Pajama Program’s current Executive Director, started out as a volunteer and describes her position as a “dream come true.” And one of her favorite aspects of Pajama Program is the Good Night Bill of Rights which she and Genevieve developed.

The Good Night Bill of Rights is Pajama Program’s outline of the five values it communicates through pajamas and books. Rights like safety, love, and creative imagination are recognized for every child in this document which fuels Pajama Program’s work. With its forward-thinking philosophy and focus on the emotional welfare of children, Pajama Program is a preventative program which seeks to instill potential in kids so their circumstances do not define their future.

Together, Piturro and Dyce continue to spread the message of good nights resulting in good days. They each recently attended a retreat for nonprofits at Harvard University to learn new ways to spread their mission. “They taught us to think of our work as a Jeopardy question,” Dyce explained. “We have the answer but what is the question? What is a good night and why is it so important?” Her commitment to the program’s mission is strong. “We believe that every person has a fundamental right to a good night’s sleep,” she told me. “And it’s our responsibility to support a comforting bedtime routine for children everywhere.”

Genevieve Piturro’s dream of helping the children in that shelter almost 20 years ago grew into a national nonprofit more successful than even she ever imagined. To date, Pajama Program has provided nearly 6 million good nights to children. Its current corporate sponsors include household names like Carter’s, Scholastic, and Target. It now has more than 60 volunteer chapters in more than 30 states as well as Puerto Rico.

Additionally, Pajama Program runs 4 Reading Centers in the New York area and Atlanta. The Reading Centers are the welcoming, child-friendly spaces where Pajama Program hosts visiting children to read with volunteer adults and feel a sense of security. “We rely on our volunteers across the country who keep our chapters and our work going,” Piturro said. Famous faces who have read to the children or volunteer their time with Pajama Program include Carla Hall, Meredith Viera, and Jenna Bush Hager.

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After two decades of selfless service, Genevieve Piturro’s simple idea has improved millions of children’s lives. Her goals for Pajama Program are still clear, and she continues to passionately spread the organization’s message. “We want people to understand the emotional piece for every child we serve,” she told me. “It’s not just about the material pajamas and books; it’s about what they represent. These children will know somebody cares about them, know they have a book they can keep, know they can go to sleep a little more peacefully.”

Pajama Program does more than provide kids with pajamas and books. It provides peace, hope, and promise to children who may otherwise never have an opportunity to recognize their self-worth and potential. It acknowledges the emotional needs of our youth, and understands the infinite amount of positive ripple effects that can occur from an emotionally nurtured child. And there is no stronger advocate to champion that cause than Genevieve Piturro. “We know we can’t fix everything going on in these children’s lives,” she explained. “But if we can take away a little hurt, we’ve done our piece.”

 

If you would like to become involved with Pajama Program, please visit www.PajamaProgram.org to learn ways you can help support their mission!

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