Last Saturday, a group of masked women stood together in the doorway of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village and cheered as they set another meticulously wrapped box onto the pile of what would quickly become a mountain of gifts for foster children. 

Kimberly Bernard and Caroline Gombé had rallied hundreds of people to marches across the city as co-founders of the Black Women’s March — which grew from the Black Lives Matter movement — during the spring and summer protests that shook New York City.

Now, they’re using those same organizing skills to marshal something different: donations to social causes, like the over 200 gifts for New York City foster youth they collected in just under two weeks.

“We do that as much as we protest,” said Gombé. “Because both of them are building a community.”

The Black Women’s March account on Instagram has more than 4,200 followers. Yet the power of the group isn’t just in social media numbers but in its ability to tap into protestor and ally networks.

‘We Wanted to Do More’

One example is the @JusticeForGeorgeNYC Instagram account, a protest and mutual aid organizing platform that emerged during the spring demonstrations. With over 250,000 followers, one share can quickly blast a donation drive around the five boroughs. 

“This is a direct result of what came out of the George Floyd murder,” said Bernard. “It’s a group of people who came together and started organizing and calling for a change in policing and a change in the system. At some point, we decided we wanted to do more than that.”

In September, Bernard cold-called the Jewish Child Care Association, a foster care agency in the city, to see if the group needed help. 

Kimberly Bernard, center, speaks with Caroline Gombe, right, and a volunteer at the Judson Memorial Church, Dec. 12, 2020. Credit: Eileen Grench/THE CITY

While Black children represent only about 24% of youths in New York City, they make up nearly 54% of the kids placed in foster care, according to a recent City Council welfare committee report. Black children also tend to stay in foster care longer.

Bernard’s group stepped in to help when a major sponsor for JCCA’s annual Christmas “snowflake initiative,” which provides at least one gift for young people between 13 and 21, dropped out.

“Kim got in touch with them because she has three kids, so it’s personal to her, you know, helping children,” said Gombé. 

The duo set to work quickly by creating an online spreadsheet to log the ages and gift requests, giving a window into each young person’s interests: from Hot Wheels to ring lights to perfume. Then they put out a call on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. 

In just 12 days, the group had fulfilled every request. Some kids even received multiple gifts. 

“Their ability to galvanize a real energy and to mobilize hundreds of people around one drive or one march or whatever initiative they are working on at the moment is inspirational, incredible and really awe-inspiring,” said Tanya Hackel, chief development officer and communications director at JCCA.

Letting Kids Know Someone Cares

MP, a 19-year-old foster youth and mother of a 4-month-old, told THE CITY that the ability to get a specifically requested present is meaningful both on a personal level and among the community of other foster youth.   

“We talk to each other constantly about, ‘Well, what are you getting for Christmas?’” said MP, who lives in The Bronx and didn’t want her full name published. 

She asked for diapers, baby wipes and a teething toy, as well as a Visa gift card for herself. 

“I ask for things that I need. I don’t ask for things to have fun,” she said. “My personality is a mom now, so I have to ask for things that I need.”

MP said that she appreciates the donors and writes them thank-you cards. “It’s like it makes them feel like we care,” she added. 

The experience has already been meaningful for people who contributed to the drive. 

Outside the Judson Memorial Church on Saturday, Michele Vakiener, 37, from Greenpoint, said one request stood out to her when she and two other friends decided to donate: a white backpack for a 16-year-old girl. 

“I just resonated with like, ‘You need that thing,’ you have to have that thing everyone else has and it’s the holiday season,” she said, after dropping off her present. 

‘Winter’s Coming’

Maria Maddox, a 25-year-old software designer from Manhattan, said she believes that many New Yorkers have changed their approach to charity in the wake of the pandemic, thanks to social media and the opportunity for isolated introspection. 

“I think a lot more people might be involved with donating and just finding out ways that they can help just because maybe they’ve been exposed to things that they maybe had no idea about before,” she said.

Still, she worried about such efforts losing momentum.

“A lot of these things might just be passing and they might just be trending,” she told THE CITY after dropping off multiple Visa gift cards. 

Maria Maddox saw the present drive shared on social media and showed up to donate, Dec. 12, 2020. Credit: Eileen Grench/THE CITY

“But I’m happy that they’ve gotten so much exposure, and I hope that people continue with that and they realize this is a fight that is not over and it’s something that needs to keep being paid for.”

Bernard said this isn’t the first or last cause Black Women’s March would be supporting.

“We’re working with this organization, and we’re going to continue to do it. We’ve done donations to battered women’s shelters and so on. The only thing I can say is we’re going to continue to do this because this is long term,” she said.

“Members of the community need to know that to that,” Gombé said. 

“You know, winter’s coming, they need to know that there is help somewhere, or at least an attempt.”