Lou Merloni, former Red Sox player and cohost of WEEI-FM’s (93.7) “Mut and Merloni” midday show, cochairs this year’s Room to Grow gala Dec. 7 with his wife, Steffanie. Twenty years ago, Steffanie was an unmarried single mother living on Cape Cod and facing an uncertain future. Today the Merlonis, who live in Marshfield with their 3-year old son, Mason, are loyal supporters of the nonprofit organization, which serves 350 needy families in the Boston area by providing clothing, baby equipment, toys, books, and other services.
Q. When you two met, Steffanie, where were you in life?
A. Lou and I met seven years ago, when my daughter Kayla was 15. At that point I was fairly settled. And I’d done OK as a single mom supporting my daughter, with her dad’s help. But while Kayla was growing up, I was growing up with her. It was tough at times.
Q. You’d gotten pregnant in high school, correct?
A. Yes. And I had no job and no real resources beyond family and friends. I did not have what Room to Grow gives young parents, which would have made a big difference.
Q. How bad was your financial situation?
A. Even once I started working, I never made more than $25,000 a year. We got government assistance — food stamps, a monthly check — but we also bounced around from place to place. Kayla was 9 before I finally started earning a steady income as a personal trainer. She just graduated from college, I’m proud to say.
Q. Room to Grow provides many things, including counseling. Is that what you missed most?
A. Absolutely. I didn’t have anyone teaching me how to get my baby to go to sleep. Or to talk with about relationship issues between two unmarried parents. Or how to find a good job.
Q. Lou, where did you come in?
A. I was still playing baseball. When we met, I was impressed by what a good kid Kayla was and the great job Steffanie had done raising her. Later, when we started a family ourselves, we realized how fortunate we really are. Which is why Room to Grow became important to us.
Q. You must get approached by a lot of charities. Why support this one?
Lou: It hits home for Steffanie. It’s part of who she is and was. And if it affects her, it affects me.
Steffanie: When you have a baby, you imagine giving that child everything. Seeing other families struggle, as Lou and I did, we wanted to affect at least one other baby’s life in a positive way. Parenting is hard under any circumstances. When you add the stress of lacking financial resources, it can take over making good choices for you and your child.
Q. How did you find out about Room to Grow? Was there a connection through its executive director, Saskia Epstein, Theo’s sister-in-law?
Lou: No, it was completely random. After Mason turned a year old and was no longer using all the stuff we’d accumulated, Steffanie started looking around for a place to donate it.
Steffanie: I didn’t want to just dump it in a bin in a parking lot. I was attached to these baby items — I was hormonal, OK? — and wanted to know where they were going. When I talk to moms now, they say the same thing. Giving away baby clothing and other items, you want to feel like you’re helping others more directly.
Q. What made you go from donor to volunteer?
Steffanie: At the 2010 gala, I listened to a mother who was being honored talk about what Room to Grow meant to her. Here I was at this happy occasion, and I was crying hearing her story. From then on, I started getting more and more involved.
Lou: That’s the way it goes with charities. In year one, you donate. Then you hear stories that hit home, and you become more emotionally involved. Meeting the people being helped takes it to an entirely different level. There’s no bad charity, really. But when you mention kids, and you’re a parent, too, it becomes a whole new ballgame.
grow.org or call 617-859-4545. Interview was condensed and edited. Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.