For years, the Pajama Program has been bringing new books and pajamas to children in need across America.

These are comforts that so many of us take, or have taken, for granted but that many kids never have—for them, a book and some pajamas symbolize hope and safety; the idea that no matter how bad things are now, someone out there cares about them.

Now, the organization has found a way not just to help those children, but help older children and teens get involved in one big, happy union of volunteering, hope, and a love of reading.

Genevieve Piturro, a former television executive, founded the program after spending weeks volunteering at a homeless shelter reading to children and feeling like she needed to do something bigger. When she finished reading to the kids, they would go to sleep with their clothes on, which were often dirty, sometimes covered in blood from when the police brought them in.

“They were alone and frightened, and given nothing but food,” she recalls. “As I turned to leave one night, a little girl in a Chicago shelter whispered in my ear, ‘Please, don’t forget me.’ People come in and out of their lives, and they’re forgotten.”

As she thought about how on earth to find a way to directly help alleviate the number of children in homeless and emergency shelters, group homes, and the foster care system, she realized it was not a problem that she or an entire army of people could tackle—but it might be possible to make life a little more comfortable for them. So, she quit her job and founded The Pajama Program, a nonprofit that brings new books and new pajamas to children in need across the U.S.

Now, a new program, Teens Empowering and Mentoring (TEAM), is geared towards impacting the teenagers served by Pajama Program who are affected by poverty. The selected group of teens attend this program weekly throughout the duration of the school year to participate in the reading party for younger children to serve as volunteers along with the adults in attendance.  

By pairing a teen with a younger student, they’re able further their own development of self-esteem and confidence through increased interaction with the community and their relationships with the children.

For small children, a book and some pajamas symbolize hope and safety, the notion that someone out there cares about them. They are brought to the Pajama Program’s Reading Center in New York City every week for reading parties that offer children the chance to buddy up with an adult volunteer for an hour to read and enjoy a snack, letting them know that somebody cares enough to spend time with them because they choose to, not because they have to. 

After the hour-long reading party, the teens now join in the fun by gathering together for a wrap up session to discuss any questions, thoughts or concerns they had from that day’s reading.

And, as always, the smaller children select a book of their choice to take with them and are each presented with a new pair of pajamas specially wrapped and labeled with their name to applaud and encourage their participation.

Of the children who travel to the program’s Reading Centers, over 90% are classified as “in economic need.”

The ages of the children served at these Reading Centers are between 4 and 18 years old. They come from Head Start programs, shelters, group homes, public schools and various social service organizations.

When the TEAM is there on a weekly basis, groups of 5-25 read either one-on-one, or in small groups, depending on the head count on any given day.

For Piturro, her staff, and the Pajama Program’s thousands of volunteers, the most rewarding part of the job is seeing the surprise in a child’s eyes when someone is giving them something new of their very own to keep.

“Those moments we share is worth all the sleepless nights worrying, ‘Are we really making a difference?’ says Piturro. “Yes, I have to believe we are.”

To find out how you can volunteer with or donate to the Pajama Program, check out their profile and opportunities listed here on GozAround.