Ashley Gooden-Stewart was a young mother in her mid-20s when she lost her firstborn, a three-and-a-half-month-old boy, in August 2015. As she moved through her grief, Ashley felt compelled to open a nonprofit, The Baby Stewart Foundation, to honor her son and spend her days filling the needs of others experiencing difficult times. She supports families with infants and toddlers by offering services like parenting and safety classes, support groups for parents who have lost a child and donations for those expecting or who need personal hygiene care. She has also gone out to assist with disaster relief across the south.
Today, Ashley runs the organization with the help of family and usually garners roughly 10 volunteers’ support for large events like hygiene drives. Sometimes, she brings her 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son to help. With a sibling on the way, they are already learning to be role models and care about others. What began amidst tragedy has become a center of hope for people when they need it most and a lasting way to honor Baby Stewart.
What inspired you to get started with this initiative?
I always knew I wanted to help people; I just didn’t know what the career looked like. I tried working for Child Protective Services, but it didn’t work for me. It felt like the needs were there but weren’t being addressed. I started volunteering at the Salvation Army and met someone who connected me with the man who would become my mentor. I went through his nonprofit certification program, but he told me that I needed to quit my job and volunteer for a nonprofit for at least a year before starting my own. But a week or two after my child passed, he told me he would help me, and the only way I could repay him was by not giving up and honoring my son.
Some people have to make the difficult decision to take $10 or $15 to put gas in their tank to get to work or to buy diapers or feminine hygiene products. No one should have to make those decisions. We came in to fill the void because there was an immediate need. We want to provide people with dignity.
Tell us about your volunteer role with The Baby Stewart.
My day-to-day activities include a lot of networking, partnering, going out into the community and talking to different commissioners or the mayor. I educate them about the baby store and the people in need. Our focus area is Galveston County, mainly in La Marque and Texas City, though we send supplies abroad, too. I manage volunteers, organize events—health fairs, school events, unhoused outreach, etc.—arrange donation pickups and cover administrative duties.
I don’t have a building or anything just yet. So, I’m in homes. I’m in the streets. I’m meeting people wherever they feel comfortable addressing their needs. I’m not like the normal nonprofit that will make you do a lot of paperwork or anything tedious. If you tell me that you need diapers and we have them, I’ll drop them off.
What are your long-term plans or goals for the organization?
I want to expand. I want to have a building and be fully operational, nine-to-five. I want people to be able to come in, tell me their need and get an assessment that’s followed-up with holistic care. I want to make sure that people can thrive in this community that lacks so much.
I want to have classes on parenting, hygiene, car seat safety and CPR. Maybe even an afterschool program where children can sit down, get a snack or a hot meal and do homework until their parents come home from work. The things that we often take for granted are what I want to be able to provide the community.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
The most rewarding part is seeing the smiles on people’s faces and hearing their stories. Sometimes, they let me know how everything worked for them after I gave them a little help. They were able to go back to school or rebuild their confidence.
I never want people to be in the situations I was in. I faced homelessness and underemployment. I didn’t have all the necessities for my first child, and I had to reach out to organizations. I feel like the only way I can pay it forward is by helping others so they don’t have to struggle as hard.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
The biggest things that I have learned are empathy and compassion. I see people from different walks of life trying to make it like every other person. They have a lot of pride, but they know they need help and to ask for that takes courage. It amazes me and keeps me going.
Why is it important for others to get involved with causes they care about?
I feel like we are in this world to be a blessing for others. My children sometimes come with me to events to help. I want to instill in them that it’s okay to help someone. It’s okay if you find yourself down on your luck. I want them to know that there are people out there who care. You don’t have to sit alone in your brokenness during your hardest time.
Any advice for people who want to start volunteering?
Make the commitment. Make me sure it’s a cause that you’re passionate about. When you’re volunteering, make sure you have gratitude, compassion and empathy. Make sure you’re coming from a place that’s non-judgmental, that you don’t bring any biases with you. I’m listening to people. I’m engaging with them. I’m not afraid of physical touch and making them feel seen and heard.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
Grief and loss are hard, and everyone’s loss is unique. But keep moving forward. Find something you’re passionate about. A lot of us throw ourselves into volunteering and philanthropy because it’s really good for our health. It motivates us to keep going, and we can connect with different people. I just want them to not let anything defeat them or detour them from what they’re meant to do.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Ashley? Find local volunteer opportunities.