Little by Little

Nonprofit shows how small acts can accomplish big things

By Jessica Laskey
July 2020

Every little bit helps. No one knows that more than Dawn Dais, founder of the nonprofit Throwing Starfish Foundation.

“People want to help, but they get overwhelmed because there’s so much need,” Dais says. “It makes you want to throw your hands up—but the truth is, if we all did a little bit, it adds up to something really large.”

Dais has done more than a little for those in need. She built houses with Habitat for Humanity in Central America in her early 20s, as well as in New Orleans post-Katrina, and has volunteered for local homeless and women’s shelters for years. But her career as a graphic designer and writer of political mailers really makes her crave giving back to her community.

To counteract “the vitriol of election season,” Dais plans community projects each year to cleanse her soul of the negativity. She started by volunteering with Together We Rise, which helps children in foster care. As Dais assembled hundreds of Sweet Cases (duffle bags filled with essentials to replace the trash bag kids are often given to tote their belongings) for the organization, she was pleased to see how many people were willing to donate items, time and money when asked. Dais figured if she put her skills organizing people to good use, she could expand her efforts and make an even bigger difference.

In 2018, the Roseville resident and mother of two made her intentions official by founding the Throwing Starfish Foundation. The name comes from a story Dais heard as a teen about an old man who comes across a boy throwing starfish stranded by high tide back into the ocean. The old man tells the boy, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?” The boy picks up a starfish, gently tosses it into the water and tells the man, “I made a difference to that one!”

That mindset—one small act can make a big difference—has guided Dais in dozens of projects, including assembling and distributing hundreds of Comfort Bags (her version of Sweet Cases) for children currently in foster care and Apartment Kits for those aging out of the foster system and into their own housing. She also prepares meals and provides backpacks full of cold weather items for the homeless population.

Throwing Starfish really took off when the Camp Fire started Nov. 8, 2018. When Dais’ friends in Chico lost their homes, she began to brainstorm ways the nonprofit could help. She raised nearly $200,000 through donations and grants from the North Valley Community Foundation to provide survivors with cold weather essentials, gift cards for food and gas, home goods like furniture and kitchen items to help people set up new residences, resources for those living off the grid and much more.

“The Camp Fire let us really expand our network,” Dais says. “I’ve met so many amazing people doing (these projects). I’ve found that if you start doing things—if you plant the seeds—people show up who want to be part of that garden.”

These experiences also prepared her to respond quickly to the pandemic. Throwing Starfish has assembled and distributed Health Worker Care Kits for nurses at Mercy General Hospital, the trauma surgery clinic at UC Davis Medical Center, the ICU at Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento Medical Center and the COVID-19 unit at Sutter Roseville Medical Center. Dais is also looking into creating kits for seniors sheltering in place while continuing her other work with the homeless, foster kids—and anyone else who needs a helping hand.

“We have to get involved in our communities,” Dais says. “We have to put boots on the ground. We have to figure out little ways that we can make a difference. We don’t need to save the world, but we can throw one starfish and encourage others to do the same. And little by little, we can make a difference.”

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Jessica Laskey can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.


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