By  on October 21, 2010

There’s more to life than just changing hemlines or lapel widths. And for the past 25 years, Kids in Distressed Situations has helped motivate the industry to look beyond its balance sheets to provide aid to children and families in need around the world.

In that time, the organization has provided more than 65 million underprivileged and disaster-stuck children with nearly $1 billion worth of new apparel, toys, books and other basic necessities.

Last year alone, it distributed $90 million of new product to 4.5 million families, according to Janice Weinman, president. It was among the first charities in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, ultimately donating $12 million of product, and also worked closely with Operation Compassion in Haiti to get $16 million in products to that country following its devastating earthquake. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg — name the disaster and K.I.D.S. springs into action. Wildfires in California? K.I.D.S. sent $2.6 million worth of product there in 2007. Kids in Alaska need shoes? The charity make sure the Cook Inlet Tribal Council received 2,900 pairs of Uggs.

All told, K.I.D.S. works with close to 1,000 local community agencies in the U.S. and abroad, with 85 percent of its efforts dedicated to U.S. causes.

“K.I.D.S. has a proven track record of providing a needed service to the children of American, as well as children around the world,” said Kevin Burke, president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association. “I am thrilled to lend my support to this organization as it continues to provide assistance for children facing homelessness, poverty, illiteracy and domestic abuse. K.I.D.S. is hard at work in all of our communities everyday, and is always ready to confront the tragedy that comes with natural disasters so lives can get back on track.”

On Dec. 1, the group will celebrate its 25-year anniversary with a gala at Cipriani Dolci in New York City. It will honor John Goodman, executive vice president of Sears Holdings Corp.; Oscar Feldenkreis, president of Perry Ellis International Inc., and Wayne Elsey, founder and chief executive officer of Soles4Soles. The keynote speaker at the dinner is Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Gayle King, editor at large for O, The Oprah Magazine, will serve as host for the evening.

In past years, the group has boast such high-powered names as Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Petra Nemacova and Michael Bloomberg as speakers and supporters.

But while the group is well-known today, its beginnings are more modest.

Publicist Karen Bromley, one of the founders along with Carol Reisman, Barbara Toback, Fred Brown and Ezra Dabah, said the idea for the charity came in 1985 when the “We Are the World” song drew worldwide attention to the plight of famine victims in Ethiopia. Bromley and a group of children’s wear manufacturers got together and asked: “Why can’t we do the same thing for kid?” she recalled. “So we started brainstorming ideas. We asked if we should raise money or donate product. We realized that no agency was providing product for children, so that became our mission. So we plotted a list of companies and made calls.”

Within the first 60 days, members of the children’s wear industry donated $250,000 worth of merchandise, and the group was off and running. It formed a board, which today consists of 40 executives in the retail, apparel, juvenile products, toy, show and associated fields. It has six employees and has some of the lowest overhead costs in the charity world — 3 percent or less.

One of the group’s longest-standing supporters is Toys ‘R’ Us.

“Since 1988, the ‘R’ Us family has given K.I.D.S. nearly $40 million in product donations from its corporate office, distribution centers and stores nationwide,” said Jerry Storch, chairman and ceo. “Additionally, the organization has received more than $800,000 in grants from the Toys ‘R’ Us Children’s Fund. Toys ‘R’ Us Inc. also works with K.I.D.S. to help provide products where and when they are needed in times of natural disasters, most recently during the crisis in Haiti.”

Storch said that since his company is focused on children, the association is a no-brainer. “At Toys ‘R’ Us, we love kids, and we are committed to keeping them safe and helping them in times of need,” he said. “With its extensive network of children’s organizations across the country, K.I.D.S. is a great partner in ensuring product donations reach vulnerable children, including during times of crisis.”

AAFA’s Burke said his organization has been an active supporter of K.I.D.S. for several years. “Just as with food and shelter, clothing and shoes are a life necessity for growing children. In 2008, K.I.D.S. was AAFA’s charity partner for the American Image Awards, where we raised more than $100,000 to assist K.I.D.S. in their vital mission. AAFA has also partnered with K.I.D.S. to meet specific and urgent needs. For instance, when the tragic earthquake hit Haiti earlier this year, AAFA helped facilitate industry donations for K.I.D.S. through our Apparel Foundation.”

K.I.D.S. is also top of mind at the MAGIC trade show every year.

Chris DeMoulin, president of MAGIC International, said he’s been involved in the charity since he worked at the Walt Disney Co. in the mid-Nineties. K.I.D.S. provides companies with “a completely effortless way to take obsolete inventory and bring it where it’s relevant,” he said. During his company’s twice-yearly events, K.I.D.S. distributes donation flyers at all exhibitors’ booths and encourages vendors to donate their excess inventory to the cause. Increasingly, DeMoulin said, the group is working more closely with retailers. “With so many brands making so much less product, it’s now retailers that have excess,” he said. “And K.I.D.S. offers them a simple, turnkey solution to the problem.”

DeMoulin said he’s gone on field trips with the group to see first-hand how the product the industry donates impacts the recipients. “It’s really powerful,” he said. “Getting brand-new product really gives them a sense of dignity and hope.”

Abbey Doneger, president of the Doneger Group, agrees. “When you see a kid look at a new sweater, a pair of sneakers or a toy, it’s remarkable what it does for their self-esteem,” he said.

Doneger, who has been on the board for more than 15 years, credited the managers of the organization, calling them “passionate people who have stayed true to their mission all these years. K.I.D.S. is 25 years young and it’s going to be in a leadership position for many years to come.”

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