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Alone At The Desk - 30: Scrunchies for a Cause

What started as a way to cope with postpartum depression became a means to help friends on the other side of the world.

ALLENDALE, Mich. — It started with a scrunchie. Those little pieces of fabric people - mostly women - use to keep their hair up. At least, that's how it was pitched to me when I got the email. A woman was making them and selling them and using the profits for a good cause. We get a lot of story submissions like this all the time. And they're great. I built an entire franchise - One Good Thing - on just these kinds of stories. So, it's started with a scrunchie. Except... it didn't. 

Very recently, I gave some advice to one of the reporter's in our newsroom. I told him, 'the story you're assigned isn't always the story you find.' In fact, very often when you go out on an assignment, you'll discovery layers that either make the story better... or are simply a better story. This is one of those times. A young woman was making scrunchies. That's where the story started. Except... it started much, much earlier than that. It started about year earlier when she gave birth to her first child.

JENNIFER: When he was first born, it felt there was just kind of, I was very indifferent. And as we came home, I, my husband did all the diapers and I never was bothered by that. I just said, Yep, sure, I was tired. And then about six months in, I started to have some pretty intense intrusive thoughts, his body and some pretty graphic image, images in my mind, and the sleepless nights this very, internally, a storm, but I just kept going, because I thought it was just, this is just motherhood, this is how it is with your first baby. 

I'm Nick LaFave. This is Alone At The Desk.

Alone At The Desk. A podcast by an average, middle aged guy who just happens to be a TV news anchor. We talk exciting and the boring parts of life, the industry, and life in the industry. And we cover some important stories along the way. Brought to you by 13 On Your Side News in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Jennifer Sipe knew she wanted kids. She and her husband were in a good place. They were still young. The both had good jobs. Jennifer teachers remotely, so even better. Her son, Roman, was born about two years ago.

NICK: When did you realize you're getting information of this is not just how it is? 

JENNIFER: When the thoughts were around the clock. And it was not just me, it was then I started graphic images in my mind with my husband with my own self. 

Jennifer said she was talking - subtly - with some of her friends who'd had children. She says she was trying to 'feel it out.' Like, did you experience this?

JENNIFER: And when they started saying, No, we did. I did not. That is not, you need to talk to somebody. 

Postpartum depression is extremely hard to quantify in terms of statistics. But, according to postpartum depression dot org, upt to 80% of women will experience the 'baby blues'. A mild, short-term mood disorder. Up to 20% of new moms will experience some kind of clinical postpartum depression. And there are many levels here. There are - again - the Blues, Postpartum Axiety, Postpartum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Postpartum Panic Disorder, and Postpartum Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. One other stat. There are approximately 4 million live births in the U.S. every year. When you consider that one in seven women will experience some kind of postpartum depression... that almost 600,000 cases. Jennifer was one. 

JENNIFER: And then I reached out. And I called my therapist and said, I don't know where to begin this. I just need help.

As she was getting that help, Jennifer came to some realizations about what she specifically needed in order to heal.

JENNIFER: And I was rocking him. And I remember just thinking there has to be more I have to do something for myself. At some point in my life, I got to get me back. 

In that moment - at 3:30 in the morning - Jennifer says she had a moment of freakishly Devine intervention. 

JENNIFER: I envisioned and saw all of it. The scrunchies the women empowerment, the there's just always something more and it's okay to go find that more. And I went, after Roman went sleep, I booked it into a room and I woke my husband and I was like, it's scrunchies that that's what I could do. 

NICK: First I want to ask what was your husband's reaction when you woke him up to tell him you were going to make scrunchies? 

JENNIFER: He said, okay, we can discuss it another time. Like, please. And he was very startled. He didn't know if something had happened. But no, but it was just, I think I could do scrunchies! People want them because they're coming back, right? 

Jennifer had an idea about which she was excited. She was getting materials together, she was getting a website and an Instagram page up and running. And she had a name: Jenny and Co... for Jenny and Company.

JENNIFER: So I had the idea of Scrunchies For A Cause. Kind of wanting to do something, but I wasn't quite sure what and everything felt forced, like, oh, let me use it for this. Let me use it for that. And how will this all organically happened when I was walking rocking Roman. So I just again, put it away. And if it's something is meant to happen, it will come to fruition and it did.

Yes, it did. Something which would become her first cause was happening - literally - on the other side of the world.

JEREMY: Basically in Johannesburg, Johannesburg, but I'm more in Cape Town now. 

Jeremy Beignaar was a tour guide in South Africa. But, that was before the pandemic.  

JEREMY: I actually lost all work for the past 14 months, absolutely no income from our side, my wife was basically at home at the same time, because of COVID and not being able to work. It really just, you know, pushed us into one of those corners where we needed to make decisions. And yeah, we lost quite a lot in that aspect. 

Five years ago, Jeremy was leading a tour for a youth group from Michigan.

JENNIFER: I was teaching at London Arts in Kalamazoo to go with a group called piece jam 12 high schoolers, myself and two other teachers, we took them to South Africa to do some community involvement to connect with they also have a piece jam group. So just to globally connect some students. And he was our tour guide. And you've remained in contact, it sounds like yes, I said, the moment I met Jeremy, I think within 10 minutes, I told him I was meant  - I don't know what for - but I was meant to meet you on this trip. 

JEREMY: That is, that is exactly what I felt exactly the same. Yep, exactly. When we, when we met, I knew, because just the connection that we made, exactly, just made me feel very comfortable. And I knew exactly, this is gonna be a lifetime friendship.

The two have remained close, and message or chat every few months. But, it had been a while since they had connected. 

JENNIFER: I've been watching the news reading, I always keep up with South Africa, West Africa. And there was some political unrest that started happening, a former president was arrested corruption. And what started as intentional protest, immediately turned to looting and severe violence, burning warehouses everything down. And so I, when I first heard about it, I thought about him, but I didn't reach out. And then I woke up again. I was taking a salad nap. And I said, some little voice that you have to Jeremy, now you have got to reach out to him. So I messaged him on Facebook Messenger. And I just said, Are you safe? I didn't know what to say. I said, Are you what's Are you safe? 

JEREMY And I just started speaking to her, told her what the situation is... 414 It was really really bad. ... after the looting started around in the area, that's when you know, it really really got bad there was a lot of you know, people getting hooked a lot of things happening malls, closing down more was burning down. And we were literally almost part of it as well. And a lot of things getting worse with all of that happening around us. 514 And really pushed us into that corner where we thought this is it. We actually losing everything.

JENNIFER: And he said, we've gone intermittent days without eating our cars been taken. We're losing our house... I said help is coming.

JEREMY: And everything just changed from there.

Jennifer asked Jeremy if it was ok to just share his family's plight on her Facebook page. He agreed, and Jennifer put up the post and included Jeremy's PayPal account. He said 73 dollars could sustain him, his wife and their two sons for a week with the basics, like water, milk, bread and rice.

JENNIFER: Within a matter of minutes, he messaged me back and he said, Jen, I have $260 in my PayPal. 

Now Jennifer wanted to concentrate on Jeremy's house. They were months behind in their payments. This time, Jennifer took her ask to her newly Jenny & Co Instagram page. 

JEREMY: I woke up and my phone just blacked exploded with a message saying we just raised over $1,500 to literally save your house. It blew my mind. It, I started literally crying with my wife. And it. It just it felt like a whole load of a mountain just dropped from our shoulders. Because we were literally going to lose everything. But you know, through that generosity, we could actually save a hole. And it was it was the 640 most it was the best feeling ever.

Jennifer wasn't stopping yet. This was her first official cause for her scrunchies. Now, she was going to sew and sell. But first, she got a hold of Jeremy's wife.

JENNIFER: I facetimed her they picked she picked out all of the fabric and again because I wanted to bring in because now she's the matriarch of the family. Caring That extra load on top of being a mom, a wife, the caretaker, she picked it out the fabrics and I said I'm a couple people said we'll just do a percentage. And I said, No, I'm doing 100% of everything that comes in for scrunchies for a cause is going to them. So I, for days, I just made them. And we launched them. And within two hours, we had over $900 and they were sold out.

JEREMY: I've learned that there is definitely people with a good heart. What actually happened? And what I felt at that time was, how is it that, you know, just a word out there, and strangers just comes together and say, Hey, we will help. I haven't met them. I haven't seen them. I don't know if I will ever will, like you said, but at the end of the day, 1025 just knowing that there is people out there, there's good people out there that literally are at your at a call away, or just a message away. And they are there to assist. And that made us as a family really, really felt that there is still hope in the world. That the East Oh, good people in the world. They made us that made us the people that we are today as well.

And here's the kind of people Jeremy and his family are. Early on, as soon as the first donations started coming in, he made the decision that they would be taking 10 percent and doing something positive with it in their community. Because they realized... they weren't the only ones who were hurting.

JENNIFER: And if you could take Mother Teresa, Buddha, Jesus, every good aura and smash it together, the Pope, anything it is, he is so powerful to be around. He's just that good of a person.

Today, Jeremy and his family are doing much better... knowing their home is secure.

JEREMY: With Jen still getting, you know, smaller donations to us via PayPal and helping us we could actually sustain my wife. Basically, I started working again, just like one day, a week.... Just by a friend. And yet it's been it's been much much better, but I think the pressure of us having the house is the most important thing for us.

Jeremy and his family were Jennifer's first cause. But, she's already moving forward with more. She'll be picking a different cause four times a year.

JENNIFER: So my whole shop will shut down for five days. It's just those scrunchies will be available and 100% of whatever comes in donation sales goes to wherever it's going. Yes, like they're in mid November, I'm doing it for the kids of Grand Rapids in safe houses or homeless shelters for Christmas gifts.

But, she isn't turning her attention away from South Africa either. Jennifer says a large number of girls in Cape Town drop out of school when they have their first period.... because they don't have proper personal hygiene products. She's launching a program which will be a perpetual part of her business to combat that problem called "Sister Scrunchies."

JENNIFER: So I said this is even more at the heart of what I want to do women empowerment, taking care of the mental health because there has to be stressful as a woman myself, saying, okay, I now can't go to school to better my education, because I don't have a basic needs met. And I said that this is now where I want this to go. And so I'm going to make them... whoever buys one, they get the scrunchie. But then the matching fabric will also be sent to the girls in South Africa, along with either reusable period underwear or reusable pads that will sustain them. And when they're taken care of correctly, in Washington rents every month, one pair or one pad can sustain for two to three years.

What began as a way to deal with a potentially debilitating diagnoses of postpartum depression developed into a hobby, then into a business, then into a mission which helped save a family eight thousand miles away, empower women on the other side of the country, and will help untold numbers of people moving forward. 

JENNIFER: When I started making them, I'll never forget when I made my first one I tried it back in January, my mom's and it was the most god awful, hideous, frickin scrunchie I've ever seen in my life. The fabric was ugly, the stitching was horrible. And I said what the heck am I doing this is this is just whatever. But I I've never pushed myself to keep my to be in the uncomfortable of letting myself grow. And so I kept going and I kept letting that vulnerability happen of growing. And when I made my first beautiful, perfect as crunchy. I sat here and cried because it was so good. And I was so excited. And even if for a moment when people open my packaging, or they send a sister spreadsheet to feel that feel good. And they deserve it. And I just want to bring that excitement and yeah, even If it's just a scrunchie like little things make the big difference. 

This has been Alone At The Desk with Nick LaFave.  If you'd like to hear more of our episodes, just go to 13OnYourSide.com/podcasts. You can also find us on iTunes, Soundcloud and Spotify. And you can find me at Twitter.com/nicklafave or Facebook.com/nicknews. And you can email me directly at NickLaFave@13OnYourSide.com. Thanks for listening.

You can find Jennifer's webpage at www.jennieandco.com.