When it comes to nonprofit 4thekids Baton Rouge, co-founders Elizabeth Sherman and Sydney Saia never say “what if,” only “why not?”
The women’s can-do attitudes have been a hallmark of their leadership since the charity’s founding in August 2012. Both teenagers at the time, the idea for the nonprofit sparked when Sherman and Saia toured the Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital with their families. The third floor Children’s Hospital better resembled the size of a football field than a full-fledged hospital, Saia said. Though it provided a range of care options, the hospital was limited by funding and available space. In some cases, area children were forced to leave the state for specialized care the hospital couldn’t off er.
Sherman and Saia witnessed friends endure hardship after being sent out-of-state for cystic fibrosis and cancer treatments. Being with friends, classmates and extended family makes a difference in a patient’s treatment and recovery, and even though text messaging and Skype options are available, it’s just not the same.
“Both my older brothers have children,” Saia said. “To think if something ever happened to them they would have to go away, it just doesn’t process in my head.”
Sherman and Saia knew the children’s wing could be so much more. At the time, the Our Lady of the Lake Foundation was working to revamp that wing’s image while quietly establishing support for a standalone hospital. The young women wanted in.
With so many adult-led charitable organizations in the city, the duo felt another women’s auxiliary group would fail to make the same impression as a teen-fronted charity. Kids helping other kids is powerful, Sherman said. And young people bring an enduring optimism and creativity to service work.
The pair wasted no time putting their plan into action. After the hospital tour, Sherman and Saia brainstormed the organization’s logo and name on the spot, running to a nearby Walgreens to purchase paint and poster boards for their personalized logo.
They camped out in the children’s wing’s playroom, chatting with patients and encouraging them to make their mark on 4thekids’ heart shaped logo. The poster was covered in painted handprints and children’s scrawl by the end of the day, and 4thekids was born.
“We never sat down and said ‘but’ or ‘what if,’” Sherman said. “There was no doubt or hesitation.”
Their headlong approach allowed them to forge ahead despite having little knowledge about how to build a charity. They made do as they went, holding meetings with the charity’s board—at the time just Sherman, Saia and their mothers—at 11:30 p.m., and squeezing in crack-of-dawn television appearances to promote the organization.
The girls began by selling t-shirts out-of-pocket until they raised enough money to begin hosting larger fundraisers. As they gained name recognition, the duo expanded their fundraising efforts to bake sales, charity estate sales, live teen concerts and “couer”sage bracelet sales, eventually hosting seven or more events per year.
By 2015, the organization had become more than the two women could manage. Seeing an opportunity to train other young leaders, Sherman and Saia established two leadership teams: a board of directors and a junior board of directors.
While the growth was exciting, it also came at an uncertain time. Sherman had matriculated to LSU and Saia was a senior at University Laboratory School. Expanding 4thekids into a college environment was a risk, and the girls weren’t sure they would be able to replicate the power the nonprofit had established among Baton Rouge’s high school crowd.
“It was like walking downstairs with a blindfold on,” Sherman said.
To their shock, the organization grew stronger through the transition. Collegiate volunteers rallied around the organization as Sherman, and eventually Saia, shared 4thekids’ story with classmates, sorority sisters in Kappa Delta and other members of the LSU community.
Today, more than 20 university-age students serve on 4thekids’ board of directors and roughly 40 students from seven area high schools serve on the junior board. In five years, 4thekids has donated $100,000 to Our Lady of the Lake, including the donation of WeeGeaux by VGo, a telepresence robot that allows pediatric patients to maintain social interactions with friends and family while receiving treatment at the hospital.
While Sherman and Saia are proud of successes like the WeeGeaux, they’re always looking to do better. This year is a year of rebranding for the organization, Saia said. The nonprofit is looking to concentrate its efforts into fewer, more profitable events to reduce stress on board members and allow them to be more creative with planning. Like everything with 4thekids, Sherman and Saia are learning as they go. But no matter the final result, they plan to go in with trust and enthusiasm.
“I get chills thinking about how far we’ve come,” Sherman said. “It was so incredibly meant to be. Everything in this charity has happened for a reason, and we’ve had so many doors open for us. It’s been mind-blowing.”
Images: Sean Gasser