When children placed in the foster care system arrive at their new home, they usually don’t bring much with them.
Jessie Miller, of Stanfield, learned that in September 2019 when she became a foster parent and the first child arrived without any extra clothing or other supplies.
“She needed a lot,” Miller said. “It just wasn’t sustainable to do that with every kid that comes through our home.”
So in the summer of 2020, Miller started Sweet Potato’s Closet. The “closet” — currently two storage units rented by Miller — holds donated clothing, toys, diapers, hair brushes and other supplies that are free to foster parents who need help outfitting the child or teenager they have welcomed into their home.
Since it is not uncommon for children to be removed from their parents at all hours, Miller is on call around the clock to meet them at the storage unit, a flashlight in hand at night. When clothing donations come in, she washes them in her personal washer and dryer, and sometimes has to keep donations at her home when the two storage units she is renting overflow. She said she hopes to find a storefront or home to rent instead.
“It’s overtaking my house, so if I can find a building with a washer and dryer, I could get my house back,” she said.
The name Sweet Potato’s Closet comes from a baby Miller and her family are currently caring for, whom they refer to as Sweet Potato on social media to protect her privacy as a foster child.
Miller knows most of the foster parents in the area through her own participation in the system, but sometimes she gets referrals from the Department of Human Services.
Marvin Hamilton, who works on resources and retention for foster families in Umatilla and Morrow counties for DHS, said he has referred many families to Miller, who he said is doing “great work” as a foster parent, and in helping out other families.
“Jessie Miller is an amazing foster parent with a huge heart,” he said in an email. “I have worked with her several times and have also referred people to her to for help with their children and meeting their needs.”
Donations for Sweet Potato’s Closet have poured in from throughout the community. On Dec. 14, Miller posted photos of her couch overflowing with socks and hygiene items donated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and said New Hope Community Church had also donated 40 new outfits for children of varying ages. Community members had also sent more than 50 Christmas gifts for foster children through the Sweet Potato’s Closet Amazon wish list.
“We’ve had SEVERAL churches message me to help and donate,” she wrote on Facebook. “We’ve had businesses reach out to help. Friends, family, friends of friends, random acquaintances. We’ve had people donate their last dollars, and we’ve had people donate 100s of dollars.”
She told the Hermiston Herald that she never envisioned when she started Sweet Potato’s Closet that the community would be so supportive, even before the endeavor has officially received 501©3 nonprofit status from the IRS.
“I’m a brand new foster parent, I’m 27 years old, I have no idea how to run a nonprofit, but here we are, and it’s working because of the community,” she said. “They’ve really helped a lot of kids.”
Miller said for anyone becoming a foster parent or wishing to donate to the cause, the best way to reach her initially is through private messages on the Sweet Potato’s Closet Facebook page. The page also includes ways to donate online, including her Venmo handle and the Amazon wish list.