Personality: Taylor Thornley Keeney
Spotlight on founder and executive director of Little Hands Virginia
6/30/2022, 6 p.m.
In December 2018, inspiration led Taylor Thornley Keeney to reshape community child care in the Richmond region. Pregnant at the time with her daughter, Frances, she was cleaning out her son’s closet to find baby items to donate to a mother in need.
However, her attempts to disperse her child’s belongings soon hit a roadblock.
While support for families in need is widely available during the holidays, and certain organizations aid school-aged children, there was a “gap in our ecosystem of support,” when it came to consistently providing items such as diapers, clothes, car seats and other essentials for young children, Ms. Keeney said.
It was a gap that made Ms. Keeney’s efforts to donate to families difficult, but also inspired her to find a solution. After six months of work and discussion with potential partners, Little Hands Virginia began operation in August 2019, with Ms. Keeney as its founder and executive director helping to bring needed items to what she describes as Virginia’s most vulnerable population.
“If we can better support children from day one, we can improve outcomes down the road,” she says. “Little Hands is all about making sure babies are clean, healthy and cared for, and supporting families at the same time.”
As Little Hands’founder, Ms. Keeney has seen firsthand its substantial growth in just three years. First launching in 2019 with five partners, the Little Hands network had grown to 15 partners helping them support about 25 children every month by the end of the year.
It now reaches more than 120 children monthly through over 60 partners.
As the families helped by Little Hands grew, so did its network of supporters, which now includes Richmond, Hopewell, Petersburg and the counties of Charles City, Chesterfield, Hanover, Henrico, Goochland and New Kent. As a result, Little Hands’ operations rapidly outgrew Ms. Keeney’s garage to a room at Second Baptist Church on River and Gaskins roads in 2019. It relocated to the Shops at Stratford Hills on Forest Hill Avenue in 2021.
Much of this growth has been driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, which increased the need for help from Little Hands. Higher prices, scarcity of items and health-related concerns also contributed to Little Hands’ growth.
Ms. Keeney foresees Little Hands’ future growth tied to retaining current partners while developing relationships with new partners, an enhanced focus on fundraising, and learning from other groups with similar missions.
“We want to make sure every possible partner that works with low-income families with young children knows who we are and knows they can come to us when a child needs items,” Ms. Keeney says. “We are also figuring out the best model to make sure families that need support month-over-month receive that support, and that we aren’t just helping families one time when longer-term assistance is needed.”
The service Little Hands provides remains in high demand, and it’s one filled with potential obstacles for those involved with its operations. However, Ms. Keeney and others are dedicated to the good the group has done in just three years for the community.
The praise and thanks Ms. Keeney sees from the people Little Hands has helped stand as testament to the inspiration she felt and the choices she made in December 2018, when a simple act of helping someone in need inspired a new service for hundreds of families.
“Throughout the pandemic I have been so driven to support families — particularly moms,” Ms. Keeney says. “It’s a tough time to be a parent, and even harder to be a low-income parent with everything going on.
“I want Little Hands to be there for every baby and mom and parent that needs diapers, needs items that as a mom I know I so often took for granted when my kids were babies.”
Meet a community provider of early child care necessities, Taylor Thornley Keeney:
Volunteer position: Founder and executive director of Little Hands Virginia.
Occupation: Public affairs consultant.
Date and place of birth: Nov. 28 in Fullerton, Calif.
Where I live now: Goochland. I have lived in the Richmond area for 13 years.
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Family: Husband, Carter, and two children, Taliaferro, 4, and Frances, 3.
Little Hands Virginia is: a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides essentials to young children (newborn to 3 years old) in need in Central Virginia.
Mission: Little Hands Virginia makes sure that children have the essentials to thrive from “Day One.” Working with our network of over 60 partners (local and state agencies, school districts, homeless shelters, hospitals, and other nonprofits), we identify children in need of support in the Greater Richmond region, bundle up the items needed, and deliver directly to the family.
When and where founded: Little Hands Virginia was founded in May of 2019 and launched in August of 2019 with five partners. By that winter we were supporting about 25 children per month through a network of about 15 partners. Today, we reach over 120 children each month. We started in my garage, which we quickly outgrew, and added a storage unit – which we immediately outgrew as well. In the Fall of 2019, we moved into a classroom at Second Baptist Church (River and Gaskins roads) – which we also outgrew pretty immediately. We were thrilled to move into our current office at the Shops at Stratford Hills on Forest Hill Avenue in the Spring of 2021. The office is really centrally located to the three localities we primarily serve – Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield – which is so important for our volunteers doing the deliveries and being accessible to the families we work with.
Story behind the name: We like to say “Lend a helping hand to Greater Richmond’s littlest hands.” Little Hands supports the littlest hands in our community – babies.
Number one goal or project for Little Hands Virginia: At just three years old, right now we are focused on identifying gaps in our work. We want to make sure every possible partner that works with low-income families with young children knows who we are and knows they can come us when a child needs items. We are also figuring out the best model to make sure families that need support month-over-month receive that support, and that we aren’t just helping families one time when longer-term assistance in needed.
Strategy for achieving goals: Everything we do is about partnerships. We know we can’t do what we do alone. That’s why it was key that we had partners the day we launched to refer families to us. We also are cognizant that we are really good at providing essential items to families for their children, but families that need, for example, diapers from us probably need other support, too. So having partners that we can refer families to for more comprehensive assistance is so key.
Immediate needs: Diapers! But all joking aside, diapers are requested in almost every referral, and there are certain size diapers and pull-ups that we always need. It’s the items that (are required to be new) that we are constantly running out of. We have a drives page on our website that we update with the items we need most - https://littlehandsva.org/drive.
Various ways individuals can lend a hand: We have three main ways to volunteer: in the office, helping with deliveries, and washing clothes at home. A majority of the more than 120 requests we fill each month are delivered directly to families by volunteers. We have regular donation hours throughout the week that are manned by a volunteer. We post our monthly volunteer opportunities online at littlehandsva.org/volunteer.
Various ways groups can lend a hand: Admittedly, group volunteering is a little harder. We just don’t have the space for groups. We do occasionally have needs for groups, especially when we receive pallets of in-kind donations delivered. We have a sign up for groups who are interested in helping at littlehandsva.org/volunteer.
Parents’ reactions to Little Hands Virginia: One example: “I cannot express my gratitude to you all enough. What you do is incredible and impacts the lives of our families and their little ones in a huge way. Thank you sincerely. (Mom) is delighted to have the items you provided; this takes a significant amount of stress off of her family in this time.” — Social worker with Family Lifelines
Little Hands Virginia partners with: We work with over 60 partners throughout Central Virginia (littlehandsva.org/about for a list) that refer families to us. Our partners include social services, departments of health, early intervention, parent infant programs, school districts, police departments, and other state and local agencies in Central Virginia. We also partner with family homeless shelters and every hospital in the area, a well as nonprofits ranging from Family Lifeline and the YMCA, to prisoner reentry programs, and ASK Childhood Cancer Foundation. The only requirement to be a partner is that the organization helps low-income families.
Upcoming events: For the summer, we are participating in a lot of other organizations’ community events. Our next event is in October when we do our annual preschool drive for some of the low-cost items we regularly have to purchase. If your preschool would like to participate, please email me! firstname.lastname@example.org
A perfect day for me is: Coffee in bed, a morning run, then playing with the kids until (in the summer) we can head to the pool. My husband and I love to cook so definitely finishing the day grilling and drinking wine in the backyard while the kids play until the sun goes down.
What I am learning about myself during the pandemic: How much my heart is pulled to help people. Throughout the pandemic I have been so driven to support families – especially moms.
What babies teach me most: That there is hope in this world. If we can better support children from day one, we can improve outcomes down the road. Little Hands is all about making sure babies are clean, healthy, cared for and supporting families..
Something I love to do that most people would never imagine: I love to garden. My husband and I built raised beds last year and the kids help me plant and take care of them. Gardening is very therapeutic to me.
A quote that inspires me: “There is always room at our table.” That this quote inspires me is probably unsurprising given the mission of Little Hands. But it’s also the approach I try to take as we raise our kids. Teaching them to be kind to every child at school, talking about why Little Hands exists and why it matters, and always having an open door for friends and family.
My friends describe me as: Driven.
Best late-night snack: Ice cream — can’t keep it in the house for that reason!
The best thing my parents ever taught me: Try everything. My parents really pushed my brother and me to be “well rounded,” and in the process I learned about a lot of different things and experienced a lot.
The person who influenced me the most: I had the same teacher in third, fourth and sixth grade – Ms. Gaither. She was so critical to my love of learning and particularly of writing, which ultimately became a huge part of my career. But her passion for education and the arts really shaped my world view at a pretty young age.
Book that influenced me the most: “Tuesdays with Morrie” by Mitch Albom.
What I’m reading now: “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman.
Next goal: Actually, personally, on the topic of books, this year I had a goal of reading one book a month and rotating between fiction and nonfiction. I’m very behind. I really want to rededicate myself to doing that.
On the topic of Little Hands, since the day we launched we have gotten a lot of outreach about expanding to other regions in Virginia. Now that the pandemic is mostly behind us and we have a good grasp on the Richmond region we are starting to have conversations again about expansion. I would love to see Little Hands have “regions” all across the Commonwealth where there is a need and interest.