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Originally published Wednesday, April 18, 2012 at 5:58 PM

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Sleep Country's Foster Kids Program brings employees together

Sleep Country, an employee-owned company, represents 10-15 percent of donations given to Treehouse, a Seattle-based nonprofit that benefits foster kids.

Seattle Times business reporter

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For the past two decades, mattress buying in the sleepless city has been synonymous with Sleep Country USA and its pervasive ad jingle.

The mattress store floods daytime TV and radio airways across the Northwest with their familiar "Sleep Country USA, why buy a mattress anywhere else" slogan.

It is also using extensive media buys to promote its Foster Kids Program to raise awareness about the area's foster kids.

Terry Horsley, Sleep Country's vice president of brand strategy, said they considered many social issues facing the local community before zeroing in on helping kids living with people to whom they are not related.

"For many, we found there wasn't much we could do, say for burn victims. The most you could do is write a big check," he said. "We wanted something all of our friends, neighbors, and our community could participate in."

The statistics are bleak. Nearly 20,000 foster kids live in Oregon and Washington. The majority of these kids have at least one chronic medical condition. They typically score 15 to 20 percent lower on statewide education tests. Nearly half become homeless when they age out of the system, at age 18, according to statistics on the Foster Kids Program website.

Since 2005, the program has collected nearly 449,000 items at its 80 stores in Oregon and Washington and $490,000, said Gina Davis, director of branding at Sleep Country and program volunteer.

Treehouse, a Seattle-based nonprofit, distributes the donations. Kent-based Sleep Country accounts for about 10 to 15 percent of their donations.

"Often times a kid comes into a foster family with literally nothing but the clothes they are wearing," said Dawn Rains, who works for Treehouse. "They have to be completely outfitted and this is the role that Sleep Country directly supports."

The Foster Kids Program organizes six drives each year, collecting items such as school supplies, clothing and toys.

"The very small stipend that (foster families) receive doesn't cover anywhere near the cost of raising a child," said Rains, a former foster-care parent herself.

According to Davis, 10 percent of Sleep Country's advertising budget is allocated to foster kids.

In addition to the public support, the Foster Kids Program relies on Sleep Country employees who volunteer. Of their 420 employees, about 40 percent volunteer with the program.

"In retail, you're trying to generate the most profit as possible. But when you've got an effort that you're dedicated to and can actually see the change you're making, it becomes more than about business," said Davis.

Rains said embedding a philanthropic cause within the seams of the mattress business has helped the company "attract and retain quality employees."

Sunny Kobe Cook and Bob Cook founded the company in 1991. Two years ago when then-president Dale Carsen retired, he granted 25 percent of its stock to qualifying employees. The majority of employees qualified for this free and automatic benefit.

Though not an uncommon model for small businesses, employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP, isn't something larger businesses look toward, especially not during a recession. Horsley said this was intentionally done during a down market so that when the company rebounds, the employees receive a higher value.

"A recession is a time to instill ownership values in the employees because they will treat the company like they are the owners," said Horsley. "Now they will make the best possible decisions for customers, employees and the company, because they have a stake in the game."

Jarrett Tomalin, a volunteer with Foster Kids, said that the program was one of the biggest reasons why she chose to work with Sleep Country.

"It makes us closer as a team — coming together for something we all feel good about," she said.

Atia Musazay: 206-464-2718 or amusazay@seattletimes.com

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