Karen Ridlon, founder of KidVantage, created an awareness for children and families who needed support in the Issaquah community. Her passion for child care and kindness were as prevalent as her persistence and tenacity to advocate for every child’s well-being. After her battle with cancer, the beloved leader, wife, mother and grandmother died on Aug. 20.
Ridlon began her journey in child care at the University of California San Francisco and became one of the first certified pediatric nurse practitioners in the United States. Working with newborns and children, she saw the lack of supplies for parents with newborns and the effect it had on each child and their parents.
Due to medical issues, Ridlon retired from nursing, but took what she observed from her career and implemented it into charity work in her Issaquah garage. This one-woman service would grow into a fundamental nonprofit across Issaquah, Bremerton, Kent and Shoreline.
In 1990, Ridlon started collecting small items in her garage. She would distribute these items to public health nurses in Bellevue and Issaquah as well as the Issaquah Food Bank.
As the donations grew, Ridlon persuaded a local storage company to donate an unheated 12-foot by 30-foot unit to work out of.
“She was kind, but kind with a purpose,” chuckled Helen Banks Routon, director of development and community relations for KidVantage, formerly known as Eastside Baby Corner.
Ridlon began to create a model that looked different from other donation centers. She worked with partner agencies, such as human service organizations, early learning centers and food banks. These agencies would tell her what each family needed. She would acquire the donated supplies and the agency would deliver the package to the family.
Working with several agencies and programs meant KidVantage could reach the most kids.
Over time, this model continued to develop through care, leadership and all of the volunteers who worked side by side with Ridlon, Banks Routon said.
Ridlon focused on creating a service where the partner agencies or programs could order specifically what a child needed.
“We get an order that comes in saying, ‘5’10’ pants, has sensory issues, please no belts or buckles.’ So the volunteer takes [the request], goes through what we have and fills that order to meet that need,” Banks Routon said. “I mean, they will say, ‘needs a pink stuffed elephant,’ and they will find that pink stuffed elephant.”
Ridlon wanted to go beyond giving a child the basics when creating each bundle.
“She always believed that every child had the potential to be whatever, and we should make sure that every child was treated as the whole child,” Banks Routon said. “It wasn’t just some kind of basics. It was whatever that child needed, that is what we would get … and what we said we could do, we had to keep that word. Her emphasis was being there and being reliable.”
Partner agencies can also shop for special items they know the child needs, such as Halloween costumes or formal wear for an event or picture day.
Banks Routon said having these items is the difference between a child feeling separate or alike to other children around them.
Becoming part of the community
Since 1990, KidVantage has gone from a small unheated storage unit to a heated 4,000-square-foot warehouse with restrooms, offices and additional storage units attached. The warehouse is at 1510 NW Maple St., Issaquah.
Through the years, Ridlon and employees and volunteers created a seamless, meticulously designed system in the warehouse. Clothes that used to be stored in donated apple crates are now in large construction bins nestled in custom-made shelving.
Each bin holds a different article of clothing or shoes for every age range up to 12 years old. Other shelves hold bedding, different types of formula and hygiene products, and in the corner of the warehouse, what looks like organized chaos is the toy section.
The attached storage units contained pallets of diapers, car seats, cribs, strollers, bikes and other hard goods.
Ridlon’s continuous emphasis on safety has carried over into the inception of a repair station in one unit. Every hard good passes through the repair station, is inspected, fixed and given the safety approval with a large white sticker.
As KidVantage became an integral part of the community, so did Ridlon.
Ridlon received the Leadership Eastside Community Choice Award, Distinguished Member Award for the Washington State Chapter of the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners, Issaquah Schools Foundation Golden Apple Award, and was chosen as a University California San Francisco Distinguished Alumni.
Donation centers from within and outside Washington state took notice of Ridlon’s successful model, and with help from KidVantage, they replicated the model.
As of 2023, KidVantage has built four hubs and works with over 75 partner agencies and 282 programs that cover five counties. An estimated 15,000 children will be helped this year with the help of employees, core volunteers and other volunteers.
Through the vast changes and improvements in the last 33 years, the backbone of the model has stayed nearly the same, Banks Routon said.
“Karen’s modus operandi was that if there was a need and we could respond to it, we responded to it,” Banks Routon said. “It’s not a very bureaucratic kind of place.”
Ridlon was a leader who listened, empowered and trusted the volunteers and employees she worked with.
“When she walked into a room, you knew somebody had walked into that room. She had a lot of presence, and a lot of it was just her faith,” Banks Routon said. “I mean, she had a lot of faith at the religious level, but also faith in people and that people wanted to do good.”
Learn more at https://kidvantagenw.org.