As Lauren and Mackenzie Multari watched the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in eastern Texas, they knew they couldn’t stand by idly.
So, the creators of Lala and Mimi’s Pajama Project made a decision: they had to help.
Now seventh graders at Reynolds Middle School, the Multaris have been aiding children in need since they were in kindergarten. And though they mostly have focused on donating pajamas to people in Mercer County the last seven years, the twins knew they had the ability to expand their scope.
A few phone calls later, they wound up connected with Bear Creek Elementary School in Houston, which had hundreds of families and dozens of staff members displaced by the storm.
Last month, they set out to send 1,000 pairs of pajamas to Houston, including a pair for all 748 students at Bear Creek Elementary. A donation of that size would bring Lala and Mimi’s Pajama Project to more than 1,400 pairs donated in 2017.
It’s just another step in the progression that has taken Lala and Mimi’s from an idea sparked by an episode of Oprah to a fledgling nonprofit. To date, not including the Houston donations, the Multaris have given away 4,239 pairs of pajamas in their lifetimes. For their efforts, Lauren and Mackenzie received the President’s Volunteer Service Award—signed by President Barack Obama—in March.
But the sisters are not out for attention or recognition. The children helped by Lala and Mimi’s Pajama Project often are in shelters or in situations where not all their basic needs are being filled. Pajamas are a simple comfort that can provide a cozy feeling in a difficult time. The knowledge they have helped provide that feeling is what motivates the Multaris to keep going.
“It’s amazing to see how much two girls can do,” Lauren said. “It shocks you to see. This is what two kids can do. It feels so good. When you give kids pajamas, and then you think that they didn’t have any, the smiles on their faces, it makes you so happy.”
Lauren and Mackenzie donated their first pajamas in May 2011, on their 6th birthday. Their parents, Jaime and Ro, planted the seeds six months earlier after being inspired by a segment about an organization called the Pajama Program on an episode of Oprah. The Multari family hosted a Christmas open house in December 2010, and encouraged guests to bring a pair of pajamas for donation.
When the time came for the twins’ birthday party that spring, Lauren and Mackenzie decided to forgo presents. Instead, they invited all their classmates in Kindergarten at Morgan Elementary School to donate a pair of pajamas. Jaime and Ro thought it would be a one-time thing.
But the Multari birthday party became a Morgan Elementary tradition. Each year it grew larger, until nearly the entire Morgan staff plus Lauren and Mackenzie’s classmates attended. In 2016, Texas Roadhouse donated pulled pork to the party, and other community members donated hots dogs and hamburgers. The Multari family had to hire lifeguards to mind their backyard pool.
In 2017, with the sisters at the much bigger Reynolds Middle School, the Multaris decided to partner with outside events, like a local Girl Scout troop project, in lieu of holding the party.
But, like the party, the urge to help has grown as the girls aged. In fourth grade, Lauren and Mackenzie asked their parents if they could do more than just the annual birthday donation. That school year, 2014-15, the girls held a “Pajama Day” at Morgan Elementary, where children donated a small amount and wore PJs to school.
But it still wasn’t enough for Lauren, who wanted to go to businesses and solicit donations. At the time, the Multaris would send everything they collected on to a national nonprofit. Lauren wanted to work for herself, deciding where donations went and who they helped.
“You can’t really go on someone else’s behalf because you’re not them,” Ro Multari said. “You don’t represent them. And that’s when she said she wanted to [become a nonprofit]. It was like, ‘Yeah, sure, we can figure out all this paperwork.’”
They finished the nonprofit paperwork that spring, and announced the creation of the new organization at the 2015 birthday party. Everyone in attendance received a Lala and Mimi’s Pajama Project T-shirt as a thank-you for their support.
“Whenever we walk in [Morgan Elementary], we can count on being cared for and appreciated,” Lauren said. “All the teachers and the kids are really supportive. They donated. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have ever done something different other than donating to [the foundation]. It really all came from them.”
The organization continued to expand, thanks to the help of Morgan Elementary principal Regina McIntyre and guidance counselor Ashley LaRose. They advocated for Lala and Mimi’s throughout the school district, getting the organization in touch with other elementary schools. One of the first efforts as a nonprofit, in 2015, was to provide pajamas as part of each school’s holiday giving tree. That endeavour opened the Multaris’ eyes to the need in Hamilton Township, and renewed their sense to focus on helping children locally. They’ve donated to local organizations, such as Shine and Inspire, Children’s Home Society, Homefront and Catholic Charities. Lala and Mimi’s also has provided pajamas to every child at three of Hamilton’s six Title I elementary schools. They plan on donating to the final three during the next two years. (Title I is a federal designation for a school that has a high percentage of students coming from low-income families.)
‘You’ve got these two ordinary girls living ordinary lives that—through the guidance of their parents—have turned something small into something big, which is great.’
The Pajama Days also expanded beyond Morgan Elementary, and with all these efforts, so did the legend of Lala and Mimi. The twins have become minor celebrities within the school district. Teachers said students at Morgan used to whisper the girls’ names as they walked passed in the hallways. Mackenzie said they have often talked to groups of students, like the Morgan Elementary Early Act Club, about the nonprofit and volunteering. McGalliard Elementary School hosts an annual “wax museum,” where students create a project on and dress up as people who have strong character. Twice, McGalliard fifth graders have picked Lauren and Mackenzie.
“It’s a bit surreal,” Ro said. “There’s Michelle Obama and Jackie Robinson, and next to them, there’s our girls.”
It’s a lot for a pair of 12-year olds who hold lofty aspirations outside of the nonprofit. Mackenzie, a talented midfielder, plays soccer competitively for the Hamilton Wildcats and wants to make the U.S. National Team. Lauren lives for swim season—“I’m not good at anything else. Just swimming” — and wants to qualify for the Olympics one day. But just as their competitive nature drives them in sports, it has motivated them with Lala and Mimi’s.
“They’re very modest about it,” said Holly Howell, a first grade teacher at Morgan Elementary School. “They just do it because it’s what they’re supposed to do. They don’t gloat about it. It’s what they’re used to; it’s what they do. You’ve got these two ordinary girls living ordinary lives that—through the guidance of their parents—have turned something small into something big, which is great.”
2017 has been the biggest year yet, starting with the March presentation of the President’s Volunteer Service Award. McIntyre and Mayor Kelly Yaede surprised the sisters during an assembly at Morgan Elementary; they had told the girls it was a character education presentation.
“The girls were prepared to speak about what they do and what they started,” said Kayti Ciaramella, a third grade teacher at Morgan Elementary. “But they didn’t know what was happening. They were so nervous to speak. They’re very introverted and humble. It’s funny for them to have to take the stage and talk about themselves because it’s not a normal thing for them to do. But the teachers were all crying on the side because we all know how much they put into it and how much they love it.”
Ever the opportunist, Lauren seized the chance to do some networking, tapping on Yaede’s shoulder to ask for help.
“We were asking if there was any need in Trenton, and if she could reach out to the Trenton mayor and see if there was anything we could help with,” Lauren said. “We were waiting for a response because if there was any need in Trenton, we want to help. We haven’t even touched Trenton yet.”
The twins were gearing up for their usual fall donations when the call for help came from far beyond Trenton.
* * *
Hurricane Harvey brought torrential rains to Texas in late August, with much of the Houston area receiving nearly three feet of precipitation. Flooding was widespread, and the waters overwhelmed reservoirs in the area. The Army Corps of Engineers, fearing worse flooding, began releasing water from the reservoirs.
Bear Creek, a subdivision of Houston, sits in a floodplain in the direct path of one reservoir’s controlled release path. Hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed, with many buildings receiving five feet of floodwater. Adding to the distress in the area is the fact this is not the first time the community will have to rebuild. A storm in April 2016 damaged much of the area. Another flood in 2008 did the same.
But, for now, Bear Creek focuses on bouncing back from Harvey. Lorena Zurtuche, principal of Bear Creek Elementary School, said many of the roads in the area were still inaccessible 10 days after the hurricane hit, covered with rubbish and water. Nineteen of her staff members have been displaced from their homes. The start of school was delayed a week, and just a few days before the new start date, the school staff had been unable to reach more than 200 families. Most of them are in shelters throughout the area.
The school itself is the highest point in the neighborhood, nearly 10 feet above street level. Water didn’t rise up that high, so the school and its grounds were used as a launching point for rescue boats, as a staging area for the National Guard, as a makeshift parking lot for residents who didn’t want the floods to ruin their cars. Zurtuche said staff wasn’t cleared to use the building until Sept. 7, and children were transferred to a nearby high school for their first day of school Sept. 11. The hurricane damaged lift pumps and a waste water treatment plant, leaving the elementary school building under water usage restrictions.
So, there was a lot of work to do to ensure a sliver of normalcy for the children as they returned to school. It’s a near impossible task considering many of the children have lost their homes and nearly all their possessions.
‘We want to keep going as long as there is a need because where there is a need we can help.’
More than 1,600 miles away in Hamilton, Lauren and Mackenzie Multari saw images of the storm, and figured they had to help. A mutual friend connected the Multaris with Zurtuche, who was floored by the girls’ offer to provide a pair of pajamas for all 748 students at Bear Creek Elementary.
“We’re feeling the love all the way from New Jersey,” Zurtuche said. “I was taken aback by their generosity. We truly do appreciate it from the bottom of our hearts.”
The Multaris want to keep sending the love to Texas. They have set a goal of donating at least 1,000 pairs of pajamas to the Houston area.
Beyond Houston, Lauren and Mackenzie would still like to help local people, even as the demands of balancing school, sports and a growing nonprofit become more intense. Lauren acknowledges that there isn’t enough time to do it all.
But the sisters see how much good their organization can still do, and they know they don’t want to stop when they can still make a difference.
“We want to keep going as long as there is a need because where there is a need we can help,” Lauren said. “People needing help will never go away, so I want to keep going.”
Meanwhile, Lauren and Mackenzie’s brothers Dominic and Anthony are in kindergarten at Morgan Elementary School this year. Expectations in the building are very high.
“Now they have to figure out what their contribution will be,” Ro said, with a laugh.
For more information or to donate, go online to lalamimispjproject.com.