This journey started more than a year ago. Let me start from the beginning.
On December 2, 2012, there was a “My Turn” article in our local newspaper, the Juneau Empire, written by Representative Les Gara expressing a need for foster homes. It was a well-written article and one that caught my attention. But I couldn’t be a foster parent and the article was forgotten. Fast forward to August 27, 2013, to an Editorial in the paper entitled, “Reach out and hold the hand of a child.” This article, too, was about the need for foster homes. Still, I was not in a position to be a foster parent.
In the Editorial, John Bennett, Family Support Specialist in the Juneau Alaska Center for Resource Families office said, “Sometimes, all OCS (office of child services) can come up with is only a temporary home…. In a couple of weeks (that child may have) bounced again. Every time that kid makes a move, it’s harmful to the child.” This statement made me sad. It got me thinking -- what if this was my grandchild?
And that's all it took. From there we learned that oftentimes children are taken into foster care with nothing but the clothes on their back, or if they do have personal belongings, it's stuffed in a garbage bag. No suitcase. No backpack. A garbage bag.... As if their personal belongings had no value….
I'm ashamed to admit that I’ve never given much thought about foster care or the children affected, but I suspect that's because it has never involved me. I didn't know anyone in foster care, I didn't know any foster care families.... but for some reason, this article spoke to me. What IF it was one of my grandchildren being taken into foster care, carrying their belongings around in a black garbage bag?
It didn’t take much thought or consideration before I knew we must contact OCS to see if there was anything we, the Lions, could do. Our idea was to provide a backpack to each child who enters the Foster Care Program. Inside the backpack, we would include a few items of comfort and necessity, items to ease the pain of those first few hours of their new life. This would be theirs to keep, something they could take with them if they got bounced to another foster home.
This idea was warmly received by OCS, and Lions Packs was born.
Next we met with OCS to talk details: how many children did they estimate would enter the Foster Care Program in the next year, what age groups/gender, and what items would be most welcome. A committee was formed and from there we decided on a list of items to put into the backpack, we selected a date for a community drive, and a date for delivery of our backpacks to OCS. A timeline was set so we knew when everything had to be done. It was now October 24, 2013…. The delivery date we chose was December 2…. We had 39 days to pull this off… I was told we couldn’t possibly meet this deadline, we didn’t have enough time. Maybe that’s why we met our goal! It wasn’t so much about ME meeting MY goal but about the kids. The sooner we could get these backpacks delivered, the more children we could help. December 2 would happen.
We quickly went to work, each of us going in different directions, making things happen. A poster was created and put on bulletin boards around town announcing our program and asking the town for donations. A bookmark was created with a list of items needed and handed to everyone we came in contact with. We contacted the local newspaper and they jumped on board and wrote a feature story on our project. We advertised via social media – Facebook, e-Clubhouse, and our blog, The Flying Lion. We approached businesses for donations. Every dentist in town gave us toothbrushes, toothpaste, and floss. The Moose Lodge donated Tommy the Moose stuffed animals. We visited thrift stores for gently-used backpacks and Friends of the Library for books. Hotels gave us sample shampoos, conditioner and body lotion. Friends and family chipped in and brought us blankets, coloring books, and crayons. The train was heading down the tracks and there was no stopping us! And this was all happening BEFORE our community drive!
On the day of our collection drive, we set up a table at the mall and waited…. We didn’t know if we were going to get five decent backpacks or 20 so badly worn that they would have to be thrown away. During our planning stage we came up with seven categories by gender/age and items we thought would fit into each category. They were: Infant to 2 years; Toddler Boy age 3-6; Toddler Girl age 3-6; Pre-Teen Boy age 7-11;Pre-Teen Girl age 7-11; Teen Boy age 12-18; Teen Girl age 12-18. We asked for the following donations:
new or gently-used backpacks
travel-size shampoo, conditioner, and deodorant
toothbrush (infant and adult) and toothpaste
small infant toy
small stuffed animal
coloring book and crayons
writing journal and pen
We were at Ground Zero. It was Zero Hour. We waited.
But we didn’t have to wait long before people started walking towards our table with their arms full of bags and boxes of donations. Children proudly stated they cleaned out their toys to donate. We had one lady donate 175 Boyd’s Bear stuffed animals and another over 300 Beany Babies. Backpacks were dropped off – new and gently used. We visited with those who had stories to tell about someone they knew being in foster care or how they were foster care parents. We listened to their stories and it felt good to know we were on the right path, we were doing something good for the community—our neighbors, family, and friends.
At the end of our day, we received over 100 new and gently-used backpacks, over 600 stuffed animals, 299 shampoos, 263 toothbrushes, 127 soap, coloring books, toys, books, and so much more! We were flabbergasted by the sheer volume of donations received! We were humbled by all the “thank you’s” received by total strangers.
But we weren’t done. Our next task was to wash all the backpacks and make sure they were as new looking as we could get them. Tables were set up in the garage and donations sorted by gender/age and category and, like a well-greased machine, each Lion, friend, and grandchild went from pile to pile filling the backpacks with items that would bring comfort and joy to these children on what could possibly be the worst night of their life. Of all the backpacks we received, one stood out. You could tell it was good quality; it looked like it had been put to good use over the years. I washed it twice. We don’t know who donated it, but tucked inside one of the pockets was a note. It read, “this pack is a great companion. It made it to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.” We laminated the note and left it in a pocket…. maybe the teen boy who received this backpack will find value in what this other person went through and realize that as bad as this moment was for him, that all things are possible with determination and a dream.
On December 3, three of us delivered 95 backpacks -- two car loads filled with love -- to the Office of Children Services. They were expecting them, but you could tell by the look on their faces that they weren’t expecting THIS!
It was a year ago, today, that got me thinking…. Not “could” we help these children, but “how” could we help them. Over this past year, we have continued collecting books, making “tag” blankets, buying items as they go on sale. We’ve had strangers ask us what we need for this year’s collection drive. OCS has asked if we can help them with other towns in Southeast Alaska where the need is great. Our answer was simple. Yes.
These children didn’t ask to be taken out of their homes, but they were. They weren’t asked to leave their personal belongings behind. They just did. Yes, life can be unfair…. But it shouldn’t be. Our children are our legacy. They deserve better. They are the innocent in all this. They deserve more. I’d like to think our Lions Packs program brought a little comfort to each of their lives that moment they were taken into custody. I’d like to think through our program that these children will know there are people who care what happens to them. I’d like to think our Lions Pack program made a difference.
* * * * * * * * * * * *