A small nonprofit that helps Massachusetts’ most vulnerable children — including those who have been taken away from abusive parents by the state — has a new, high-profile advocate.
Lauren Baker, the wife of Governor Charlie Baker, announced Tuesday that expanding the positive impact of the Wonderfund will be her primary initiative as first lady, and she will serve as the group’s unpaid vice chairwoman.
The organization, founded in 1998, supports children in the Department of Children and Families system by giving them clothes, holiday gifts, and paying for enrichment activities — from summer camp to lifeguard training — intended to create transcendent moments in a tough stretch of childhood.
“My deepest passion is for kids,” Baker said in an interview.
And it’s important that every kid has the opportunity to have positive childhood experiences, especially ones who are grappling with trauma, she said in her husband’s State House office.
“These are kids who really deserve it” she said. “Because it’s not their fault they’re engaged with DCF.”
The nonprofit, formerly called the DCF Kids Fund, had a budget of about $400,000 last calendar year, Baker said, and currently reaches a few thousand children. She said she hopes to increase its budget to $1.5 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1, serving even more children. And she said she is working to put the group on the trajectory to be able to help the 50,000 or so kids involved with DCF on any given day.
“I want to double the impact for every year, as long as we can do it,” she said.
To protect kids’ confidentiality, the nonprofit doesn’t directly interact with the children, nor does it directly provide services like ballet or swim lessons. But it serves as a resource that can be tapped by the front-line social workers who advocate for the children, Baker said, providing money that the state cannot.
So, for example, if a DCF social worker hears from a boy in foster care that he wants to join Little League, the worker might ask the Wonderfund for the resource to get the boy a baseball glove and uniform.
That’s a moral good, Baker said. And, she added, studies back up the thinking that intervening in the life of children who have endured trauma with a positive experience helps build confidence and promotes resiliency.
Baker offered a real-world example of what the nonprofit does: a social worker advocating for a girl who had been in and out of foster care because of her mother’s drug use asked the Wonderfund to pay for lifeguard training.
“She’s sixteen, so she was starting to experiment with substances and hang with the wrong kids. In a conversation with the social worker, she mentioned that over the February break, she might want to make the choice to get her certification,” Baker said.
So the Wonderfund paid for that lifeguard training, which kept her away from her friends who were “pulling her in the wrong direction,” and set her on a better course, with the ability to get a good-paying summer job.
“That’s an investment we made of maybe 400 bucks, but that is going to change the trajectory of that girl’s life,” said Baker, a 56-year-old who spent years as an executive at a prominent Boston advertising agency, Hill Holliday.
Baker, who has been working with the nonprofit for the last 18 months, continues to do part-time marketing and communications consulting at The Baker Group, a firm focused on helping independent schools enhance enrollment that is led by Christine Hailer Baker, the governor’s sister.
Lauren Baker was a constant presence on the gubernatorial campaign trail in 2014, but has exhibited a much lower public profile since her husband took office in January 2015.
The nonprofit — with a single employee, executive director Jennifer Kitchenham — is formally independent of DCF, but it is based out of the child welfare agency’s headquarters. State and federal filings show Linda S. Spears as the group’s president. Spears was appointed by the governor as DCF’s commissioner in 2015.
After the state was buffeted by a series of high-profile child abuse cases in recent years, the governor made revamping DCF one of his priorities early in his tenure.
In Massachusetts, the spouse of the governor has no formal role. There is no governor’s mansion to oversee, and the spouse doesn’t have any staff.
So it’s up to each spouse to decide how they want to use the role.
For Baker’s part, she said she’s pleased to have found “a little hidden gem” of a nonprofit and is excited to boost both its visibility and its capacity to serve the state’s most vulnerable youth.Joshua Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos