TRENTON, Ohio -- It took about 30 minutes for Mike Watkins and a few volunteers to assemble new bunk beds for Brittany Fowler’s daughters.
But that little bit of time changed the lives of Serenity, who is 9, and Ariel, who is 3 and -- until then -- had never had a bed of her own.
“My fiancé died last year, and we had to move home with my mom and start all the way over,” Fowler said. “It means the world to know that instead of making a pallet or sleeping together on the couch that she’s going to be comfortable.”
That’s the whole point of Sleep in Heavenly Peace, a nonprofit driven by the belief that no child should have to sleep on the floor. Started in Idaho, Sleep in Heavenly Peace works to build and donate bunk beds to needy children who don’t have beds of their own. The organization has about 70 chapters in 30 states with another 40 in the works, Watkins said.
Watkins and his wife, Eileen, saw a Facebook video about the group’s work and felt inspired to get involved. They went to Idaho for training in April and launched the Butler County chapter in May.
“I had not the best childhood,” Watkins said, explaining why the organization’s mission touched his heart. “There was always people that came into my life and helped me out. And so this is my paying it back, paying it forward type of thing.”
Watkins serves as president of the Butler County chapter, and his wife jokes she is “assistant to the president.” She organizes the many requests for beds that come to the chapter and makes contact with the families in need that reach out for help.
“I really enjoy talking to other moms and just hearing a bit of their situation,” Eileen Watkins said. “It could be any of us at any time. It’s just an unexpected situation that happens -- whether it’s a health issue, a job issue or maybe something wrong with the family. And it just puts them in a situation where they’re not able to provide how they want to.”
‘The need is real’
In its first month, the Butler County chapter of Sleep in Heavenly Peace delivered beds to 13 families in Butler County, she said. The chapter already has about 150 requests for beds.
“It just makes us realize the need is there and the need is real, and it’s big,” she said.
The couple and their volunteers work to meet the need with the help of corporate sponsors that use bed-building events as volunteer activities for their employees.
The companies contact Sleep in Heavenly Peace through the organization’s website. Then Mike or Eileen Watkins tells them how much it would cost to buy all the materials to build however many beds the businesses want their employees to build. The cost includes mattresses, pillows, sheets and comforters, too.
“They provide the volunteers, and we provide the crew to do the build,” Eileen Watkins said. “And they can even go on deliveries.”
The Worthington Steel plant in Monroe sponsored a 20-bed build recently, for example, which will be enough bunk beds to serve 40 Butler County children.
The Butler County chapter has several more builds scheduled for the coming weeks. But Mike Watkins said he hopes that spreading the word about Sleep in Heavenly Peace will inspire people to create chapters in other southwest Ohio counties, too.
The organization estimates there are as many as 12,000 children in Butler County alone who don’t have their own beds, he said.
“We could never fill that need so we don’t want to go outside Butler County if possible,” he said.
Eileen Watkins stressed that the chapter has the potential to reach a lot more families.
“Meeting the need is only limited by the amount of donations we can get, whether it be material, the bedding, the mattresses, the sheets,” she said. “We could do a lot more.”
'Making a difference'
Still, she is careful not to underestimate what the fledgling chapter already is accomplishing.
“It’s happening,” she said. “The ball’s rolling, and it’s working. We’re making a difference.”
Mike and Eileen Watkins have six children between them, including four teenage boys, and their children have helped with many aspects of the nonprofit work.
Eileen Watkins’ oldest son, Nick Clemmons, 19, has helped with social media and writing grants.
Her daughter, Ryleigh, 13, helps sort the bed requests so they are grouped by cities within Butler County.
And Mike Watkins’ sons, Alex, 16, and Thomas, 12, help on the builds to cut the wood, sand it and drill the holes that make assembly easy.
“I’ve always grown up with a pretty lucky life. I’ve never experienced poverty or anything like that,” Ryleigh said. “So seeing this in person, seeing these kids who don’t have what I have, I think it’s just really great to help them.”
“It helps you be more thankful for what you have, seeing what you have and they don’t,” Alex added. “Especially beds because, I mean, everyone has a bed, you think. Until you see that there are kids that are sleeping on the floors, and it’s rough for them.”
Mike Watkins can relate to those kids even more than his own children and stepchildren can.
“I remember, one time in particular, we had an apartment, and we just moved in. We didn’t have any furniture,” Watkins said. “My mom left a bad situation. And, yeah, we had sleeping bags in our room for a while. I don’t remember how long. But I do remember that situation going on.”
‘Doing God’s work’
As much as Watkins’ own difficult childhood pulled him toward the mission of Sleep in Heavenly Peace, his memories aren’t why he invests so much time and energy into the work, he said.
“I believe, for me, that people should not be sitting on the sidelines. You should be getting involved in your community. You should be getting involved and helping people out,” he said. “If you’re not doing something to help somebody else, to me, it’s a waste of life.”
Sleep in Heavenly Peace is not a religious organization, Watkins said. But for him, he said, “it’s about doing God’s work.”
Fowler and her daughters certainly felt that on the sunny afternoon earlier this month when Mike and Eileen Watkins and two of their friends delivered and assembled the girls’ Sleep in Heavenly Peace bunk beds.
“I love it so much,” Serenity said just a few minutes after climbing into the top bunk for the first time. “I’m happy, really happy.”
“It’s a blessing,” Fowler said, fighting back tears. “It’s really a blessing.”
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.
To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.