Carey Johnson

Carey Johnson, co-director of Christian education at North Scottsdale United Methodist Church, poses with a stack of new pajamas and books donated as part of the church’s Magic of Books & Pajamas drive, a partnership with nonprofit organization, the Pajama Project. (North Scottsdale United Methodist Church/Special to the Progress)

When parents get their children ready for bed each night, the process is standard for most: take a bath, slip into comfy pajamas and read a bedtime story.

But for many children, this isn’t the norm, and Lucia Wheele, Arizona chapter president of the Pajama Project, wants to change that.

The Pajama Project and the North Scottsdale United Methodist Church have partnered for a pajama and book drive throughout the month of March.

Community members are invited to stop by the church’s office or Fellowship Hall to donate new pajamas and books, which will be given to at-risk children and teens between the ages of 8 and 18 living in shelters, group homes and temporary housing in the Phoenix area.

So far, the church has received an overwhelming amount of donations.

“We’ve gotten way more than I expected; Everybody’s really excited about it,” said Carey Johnson, the church’s co-director of Christian education. “We’ve had grandparents bringing in books because it touched something in them that they wanted to help. So, we’ve just had an overall great response.”

The Pajama Project, a New York-based nonprofit organization Wheele brought to the Valley 12 years ago, has one goal: give kids in need a new pair of pajamas and new books.

But, according to Wheele and her community partners, it’s about more than that.

“This program brings more than just pajamas, it brings comfort and safety,” writes one of Pajama Project’s community partners in a “thank you” email.

The Pajama Project was founded in 2001 by Genevieve Piturro in New York, and since then, the nonprofit has donated nearly 3.5 million pajamas and nearly 2.5 million books.

Wheele started the Arizona chapter in April 2007 and has collected and distributed 51,062 pairs of pajamas and 20,577 books.  

“It just seems like it’s snowballing in such a good way,” she said.

The chapter currently has 60 community partners consisting of group homes, foster care facilities and shelters throughout the state.

“This is my passion,” Wheele said. “So, knowing that I have the support of my friends, of the community, and knowing that every day I wake up with a passion that I am very fortunate to fulfill, that just helps propel me.”

This pajama and book drive is part of the church’s Families Doing Good Together outreach program.

Johnson said the outreach program gives families a way to volunteer within their own community, as well as form bonds with other families who are also volunteering.

“They want to raise their kids, teaching them to serve and give back and do good, but to do it as a family,” Johnson said. “It’s nice to have a church connection, but it’s also nice for families to have connections with other families.”

The outreach program hosts drives and events every two months.

Staple events include an annual backpack drive, where they receive anywhere from 80 to 90 backpacks to donate to Scottsdale-based Vista del Camino Community Center, which serves in-need Scottsdale residents, and volunteering at Mesa-based nonprofit organization Feed My Starving Children.

“As a church, we want to reach outside of our doors, show God’s love and generosity and kindness, take it out of our church and take it out into the community and have families do it together so that their children learn that at an early age and can grow up to be able to give back as well,” Johnson said.

This is Wheele’s first time working with the church, and she was ecstatic to partner with the church.

“We’re here to help the community in any way that we possibly can,” she said. “I don’t want to be the best little kept secret in Arizona; I want to be able to help children as much as I can. Pay it forward.”

Wheele started the program in Arizona because, after raising two boys on her own as a single mother for 12 years, she felt the need to give back to the community that helped her.

Once her sons were in their teens, she found herself with a little more time to donate to a charity, one focused on children.

Wheele admitted she had no idea what she was getting herself into, but she knew the end result – donating pajamas and books to children – and that alone has given her the strength to keep going.

“It’s incredible how grateful they are,” she said. “Some of them just hold on to their pajamas or they hold onto my leg. Other kids just put their pajamas on right away and others are very shy, but they get so excited with a new pair of pajamas.”

During Wheele’s first year, she had a total donation of 100 pajamas and had two community partners.

Then the word got out.

“Others found out about us not only needing pajamas, but wanting to do drives for us, and it just spread like wildfire,” she said.

Wheele said the Pajama Project resonates especially with moms.

“We always remember giving the children a bath, putting on those nice clean pajamas, reading to them on your lap and then putting them down for the night. It’s just an incredible bonding experience,” she said. “It’s more than pajamas.”

The Pajama Project also resonates with children; Wheele has seen it firsthand.

“When you tell a child that you’re buying pajamas for a child that has no pajamas, they can’t even conceive that. They have pajamas,” she said. “And so for them to go out and buy pajamas with their parents and then box it up and then bring it to my house, it’s just an amazing feeling for them.”

Johnson said the church purposely chooses outreach opportunities children can relate to.

“Every night, they know they go to bed with clean pajamas, their parents read to them; but for them to understand that there are so many kids that don’t, they can relate and it makes them have a little more ownership in it,” Johnson said.  

How to help

Magic of Books & Pajama’s Drive

When: Through March 31

Where: NSUMC, 11735 N. Scottsdale Road