Danielle Gletow, One Simple Wish

Our second “Good on the Ground” episode features Danielle Gletow, the creator of New Jersey nonprofit One Simple Wish. Her online registry of foster kids’ wishes lets caring adults bring more joy to childhoods of America’s invisible children.

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SUE: (as music plays lightly in the background) You’re listening to Good on the Ground...

VARIOUS VOICES: …Good on the Ground...

COLLEEN: …You’re listening to Good on the Ground from The Story Exchange.

DANIELLE: Foster care’s a topic that we don’t talk about the way we talk about autism or the way we talk about childhood diseases like cancer and diabetes.

COLLEEN: This is Colleen DeBaise.

SUE: This is Sue Williams.

COLLEEN: And today...

SUE: ...today...

COLLEEN: We are once again digging deep...

SUE: ...finding the best, most inspirational stories...

COLLEEN: ...for our Good on the Ground series. Should we remind our listeners why, again, we’re doing this series?

SUE: Yes, let’s do that. Well, these are worrisome times in the United States...

COLLEEN: That’s a good way to put it.

SUE: ...with cuts to social welfare programs, public health and environmental safety.

COLLEEN: So we’re taking a look at entrepreneurs working in the trenches, doing good on the ground, doing their best to solve social issues in innovative ways.

SUE: Which brings us to today’s podcast.

DANIELLE: My name is Danielle Gletow, and I’m the founder and Executive Director of One Simple Wish.

SUE: We headed to Trenton, New Jersey to talk to one fearless mom...

COLLEEN: ...who wants to bring joy to America’s invisible children.

SUE: If you want to hear how one person can make a difference, give this podcast a listen.

*Musical Interlude*

DANIELLE: Foster care is almost never talked about and when it is, it’s negative.

SOT: Come here, sweetie. I can take her for you. Oh no, it’s okay, baby girl.

DANIELLE: And it is, “Well, the foster parents take -- do it for the money. Well, the caseworkers don’t care. Well, the kids are all damaged,” all these negative, terrible stories. We’re saying, “You know what? You’re right. There’s a lot that’s broken. There’s a lot we need to fix. So join us in doing something positive and we will show you the way to do even more.”

COLLEEN: Meet Danielle, who is perhaps the most passionate entrepreneur I’ve ever interviewed.

SUE: I know. If anyone is going to change the world, it’s her!

COLLEEN: Yeah. Danielle started One Simple Wish out of her home in 2008. It’s an online registry where foster kids can ask for anything they want --

SUE: -- whether that’s skateboards, or music lessons, or a birthday party --

COLLEEN: -- and donors, ordinary people like you or me, can grant those wishes.

SUE: And keep in mind, these are typically foster kids who have no one else to ask.

DANIELLE: One Simple Wish empowers everybody to brighten the lives of children in foster care in simple and meaningful ways.

SOT: This is a thank you note from Child Help to our team from their team for Halloween.

COLLEEN: There’s of course a background story to all of this.

SUE: There always is. Danielle grew up in New Jersey, the middle of three sisters.

DANIELLE: I had a lot of issues growing up myself. My parents got divorced when I was 13 years old. I actually moved back and forth between both of my parents from the time I was 13 until I was about 19.

COLLEEN: For a while, she was separated from her sisters.

DANIELLE: I struggled a lot with depression, anxiety, was briefly hospitalized when I was in my early teens. The more I learn about the children that are going through foster care and their instability, it reminds me a lot of my own childhood and it reminds me that I’m actually really lucky, because despite all that moving around, I did know my parents loved me.

SUE: Danielle was a gifted student, but she wasn’t interested in school.

DANIELLE: So I decided to go to Seton Hall, which is where my father graduated from, and I just went off the rails. I just drank constantly. I, you know, quickly like, made the wrong friends.

COLLEEN: She dropped out, crashed her car, then quickly racked up debt, buying nice clothes and fabulous shoes.

DANIELLE: And I think it was around that time that I decided, “Well, I don’t really care what I do but I want to make a lot of money. That’s what’s going to make me successful. I’m going to be rich.”

SUE: Fortunately, Danielle has a very strong work ethic.

DANIELLE: I had like, 15 jobs before I was like, 22.

COLLEEN: She finally found a career that stuck.

DANIELLE: And so I moved into marketing. My writing skills really helped, and I noticed that, whenever I was taking on a project that had a lot of creativity involved, I was really excelling.

COLLEEN: And that’s when things started to groove for Danielle. She got married to husband Joe. They both worked in corporate jobs earning big salaries, they had a nice house, they went out to fancy dinners...

DANIELLE: That was my sign of success.

SUE: Her life looked very different than it does today.

COLLEEN: And then, she and Joe decided to become foster parents.

DANIELLE: Very soon after we got married we started talking about having, starting a family. I was very content with how things were going in my life and I wanted to be a mom but I didn’t necessarily want to carry a child. And so I told him, you know, “Why don’t we, why don’t we look into becoming foster parents?” with the goal of adopting.

SUE: In 2006, they applied to become licensed foster parents. They had just completed certification when...

DANIELLE: The phone call came in from a worker in our county that said they needed to place a little boy who was 18 months old. His parents had been incarcerated that night for physical abuse of his brother.

COLLEEN: Jose arrived at their door wearing a giant winter coat and a onesie.

DANIELLE: Just, you know, this so adorable little boy just looked so confused. You know, within a day we were like, “We love you! We love this baby.” He did all of our family things with us. We took him to my sister’s horse farm, and we took him to family parties, and he, we had him for Halloween.

SUE: But after three months, Jose was returned to his family.

COLLEEN: Then came Antonio.

DANIELLE: He was two years old and he came from a very neglectful environment and we thought we were going to be able to adopt him.

COLLEEN: That didn’t happen. His biological mother completed a very brief rehab, and regained custody.

DANIELLE: It was actually one of the most devastating things I’ve had to deal with in my entire life, was saying goodbye to him. We fought pretty hard to try to keep him at least a little bit longer so his mother could get more help but the courts were pretty adamant about reunifying him. So after he was taken my husband and I, we were just crushed, just absolutely crushed and Joe said, “I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

*Musical Interlude*

COLLEEN: We’ve been sharing the story of Danielle Gletow, who has started One Simple Wish, an organization that grants wishes to foster children.

SUE: Earlier in the podcast, she said no one talks about foster care.

COLLEEN: Yeah. By “no one,” I think she really means middle-class America, suburban folks who aren’t typically exposed to the child welfare system.

SUE: There’s a stigma, really.

COLLEEN: Yeah, there is. As Danielle says, there’s almost a sense that the kids have done something to deserve this. And of course they haven’t.

SUE: That’s it exactly. Danielle, of course, is very aware that much needs to change about the foster care system.

DANIELLE: I want to see us think about innovative ways to recruit foster parents. Let’s stop leading with, “We’ll pay you to take care of kids.” Let’s instead lead with, “You’re a great person with a lot of resources who’s been an amazing mom or dad. Why don’t you help out some children that could use a person like you?” Period.

COLLEEN: But meanwhile, she has an expression for this: “When you see a problem, just because you can’t fix it doesn’t mean you can’t do something about it.”

SUE: So let’s pick up where we left off...

COLLEEN: Right. After fostering two children, and saying goodbye to them, Danielle’s husband Joe needed a break.

DANIELLE: He said, “You know, this, it’s, it’s not the kids. It’s the system. I just, I can’t deal with this. They’re just, the decisions that are made, and the incompetence, and people not showing up when they’re supposed to, and it’s just too much. I don’t want to do it.”

SUE: And so they took a break. They went on vacation. They’d still get calls once in awhile, from case workers. But Danielle would tell them: “We’re not ready for a placement.”

COLLEEN: Their careers were still going well. Everything was good.

DANIELLE: But like, this part, this amazingly big part of ourselves felt like it was missing.

SUE: One thing led to another...

DANIELLE: And so, you know, he said, “Well, let’s try to have a child, you know, the old-fashioned way.”

COLLEEN: But that didn’t work so well either.

DANIELLE: I remember thinking, like, “All right, universe. What’s going on here? I’m supposed to be a mom. I know I am and I can’t adopt and now I can’t get pregnant. What is, what’s the problem?”

COLLEEN: We think the universe listened...

SUE: Because one last phone call came in, from a caseworker -- this time, about a newborn girl.

DANIELLE: She’s three days old right from the hospital. And it was like this crazy feeling of, “Oh my God, that’s my baby.” Very quickly after that, the doorbell rang and the caseworker, he handed her to me and I said, “What’s her name?” And he said, “I don't know. Name her whatever you want.” And I said, “Okay!”

COLLEEN: There’s more...we weren’t kidding about the universe listening.

SUE: Two weeks after they took in Mia...

DANIELLE: I was a little bit late and so I, we were having friends come over and I said to my husband, “You know, before they get here I’m gonna just run and take another pregnancy test.”

COLLEEN: You guessed it...

DANIELLE: And I was like, “I’m pregnant.” And his face was like, “Are you kidding me?” We have a two-week-old and I’m pregnant. But it was awesome. So I raised Mia while pregnant with Liliana.

SUE: After that, they decided to close their home.

DANIELLE: We lived in a two-bedroom townhouse and we didn’t have any more space.

COLLEEN: But Danielle knew she wasn’t done.

DANIELLE: I knew that this was what I was supposed to do, that I was supposed to help kids in foster care. I knew I had to do more than what we had done.

*Musical Interlude*

COLLEEN: While on maternity leave from her high-paying marketing job, Danielle did some research.

DANIELLE: I decided to develop a platform that would make it easier for anybody who even had an inkling that maybe they wanted to help, that made it just beyond simple. And so that was how One Simple Wish started.

COLLEEN: She’d go to Starbucks, and sit there with car seats, her babies, and her laptop.

DANIELLE: I would plug away on a business plan and downloaded every document I could think of about starting a nonprofit, and how to gather funding and support.

COLLEEN: In 2008, she and Joe decided to invest $10,000 of their own money to develop the One Simple Wish website.

DANIELLE: And the idea was we would have a registry of wishes, simple things that pretty much anybody could do, especially people in middle, upper-middle class America.

COLLEEN: The site would NOT be full of things that adults thought foster children needed...

SUE: But rather, it would be full of stuff that kids were actually asking for -- fun things like a tablet, or Legos, or tickets to an amusement park.

DANIELLE: We knew that from our experiences that they were going without a lot of some of the most joyful parts of a childhood, and we wanted to give that back.

COLLEEN: Danielle made the rounds, making sure foster child agencies were on board with the idea.

DANIELLE: I think the other agencies have really appreciated that we’ve always come from a place of togetherness because it is a village.

COLLEEN: She signed up 12 New Jersey agencies as part of One Simple Wish’s partner network.

SUE: But it was slow-going.

DANIELLE: It was mostly friends and family that were granting wishes or people that I worked with.

COLLEEN: Still, the site started to grow. More and more people were granting the kid’s wishes and Danielle found herself running home from her marketing job, kicking off her heels and doing as much as possible at night.

SUE: After a year of juggling, she quit her day job.

DANIELLE: I had a pretty lucrative career and it was a big decision, but best decision I ever made. You know, you can’t really put a, a dollar amount on loving what you do, so.

COLLEEN: She and Joe learned to live more frugally.

DANIELLE: I still have, you know, a closet at home full of Jimmy Choos and, and Paul Smith, and Manolo Blahniks, and, you know, those fancy things and, and quite honestly I rarely ever wear them anymore.

*Musical Interlude*

COLLEEN: Four years later, a big break came. In December 2012, NBC Nightly News aired a segment on One Simple Wish.

SOT: Now for our making a difference report. Tonight’s story is about making some dreams come true for children...

DANIELLE: That was really the turning point for us. That night that it aired I think we did like $40,000 or $50,000 in wishes. And then in the month that followed, $250,000-plus in wishes. And we were just like, “Oh my God. What are we going to do?” So we quickly ramped up. It was, we had a very quick trajectory.

SUE: Today, Danielle has a staff of five and an annual operating budget, excluding wishes, of $375,000.

COLLEEN: When a user decides to fund a foster child’s wish, a small percent, about 5% to 8%, goes to the cost of overhead.

DANIELLE: And so now we’ve gone from this organization that was just supporting children in New Jersey to supporting over 35,000 children in 49 states through a network of 800 agency partners.

SOT: Did everybody see the Disney campaign?
-Okay, so go to onesimplewish.org...

COLLEEN: A number of companies -- including Volkswagen, Disney and TJX -- are corporate partners, in some cases encouraging employees to grant wishes.

SOT: Oh these are great. Ooh, and long sleeves, perfect.

SUE: Danielle is quick to point out that the “stuff” on the site is much more than just “stuff.”

DANIELLE: The wishes represent so much more to these children. These wishes represent the idea that there is somebody out there that cares.

SUE: The fact that most of these kids have no one to turn to when they want something -- something that’s not extravagant, just a cool pair of sneakers for school, or a tablet for games and reading, or their first bits of makeup -- it’s pretty heartbreaking.

COLLEEN: Yeah, it is. Danielle believes that foster children should be everyone’s responsibility and that we should all step up if we can. Supporting these kids could help ward off...

DANIELLE: ...poverty, pregnancy, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, depression, mental illness. These are all things that impact foster children at much higher rates than the general population.

SUE: Danielle hopes the organization will someday be a household name.

DANIELLE: I want One Simple Wish to be, you know, up there with Make-A-Wish Foundation and I want to see Super Bowl ads about One Simple Wish some day. And then I want to see the website run out of wishes!

COLLEEN: Our thanks to Danielle Gletow of One Simple Wish.

SUE: Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or...maybe you would. This has been The Story Exchange.

COLLEEN: If you liked this podcast, please share on social media or post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. Sound editing provided by Nusha Balyan. Interview recorded by Sam Shinn. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.