There is no planning when a child needs to be removed from a potentially dangerous living situation. Frequently, children arrive in foster placements with nothing but the clothes on their backs. If they are “lucky,” they may have a black garbage bag with whatever the case worker who picked them up was able to grab on the way out the door. And the next morning, many of these kids have to go to school. With no sleep, no clean clothes . . . and no backpacks.
One summer afternoon in 2017, West Newbury neighbors Tara Driscoll and Michelle McGee were comparing notes on their experiences as foster parents. Tara had fostered five kids that year and not one of them had arrived with a tooth brush or pajamas. Another eight year old girl had come with only a bag of dirty size 8 women’s clothing. A note on Facebook when Tara was unexpectedly asked to receive a toddler yielded generous donations from the local community. But not every foster parent has a community like that, nor does everyone have a Walmart or Target right down the street where they can pick up diapers and other supplies they may not have on hand regularly. Or the resources to do so. The two friends mused – wouldn’t it be nice if someone had a party to collect and package some useful donations for foster families? Fostering Care was born.
Initially, Tara and Michelle talked about supporting one or two kids a month. But the incredible outpouring of community support they’ve had for their initiative has allowed them to make a much greater impact. In fact, they have not had to personally host even one “packing party,” although they have packed hundreds of generous donations themselves. A number of community groups – including scout groups, preschools, book clubs, church and school groups – have taken the initiative, using guidance from Fostering Care, to create collections and/or throw collection parties themselves.
Tara and Michelle started off distributing backpacks to “hotline” parents by request. In the foster care system, hotline parents are those that take kids in on an emergency basis, usually in the middle of the night. Those parents could, for example, call Tara and Michelle and tell them “we just received 10 and 12-year-old brothers” and Tara and Michelle would bring backpacks with appropriate supplies. Then they started working with the Haverhill Department of Children and Families (DCF) office before expanding to Lawrence, an office that supports over 1000 children in foster care. Since then, they have been able to help children in Lynn, Chelsea, Lowell and Chelmsford as well. In 2018, they ended up supporting 347 kids/backpacks. This year, they have supported 325 kids since January 1. So, in the twenty months since they’ve started this project, they’ve supported 672 kids – which is 632 more than the one or two kids a month (or roughly 50 kids total) they had hoped to help out by this point when they first had the idea!
An example of the groundswell support they’ve unleashed with their idea: in late April, an Ipswich Facebook page admin, Alexis MacIntyre, suggested a backpack party, engaged sponsors, and coordinated collection efforts with the local police and fire stations. Soon, someone had donated use of the Literary Society for the “packing party” and Alexis got food, music, and some confirmation class kids involved. They ended up collecting 171 backpacks and filled each bag with two outfits, pajamas, socks, underwear, a book, blanket, stuffed animal, and a toy or activity appropriate for a child aged 0-14 years old. As a result, Fostering Care was able to bring 50 bags to Lowell the very next day. Two kids in need of bags arrived in the office as they were dropping off.
Tara and Michelle explained to me the two-fold reason why this mission is so important to them. First is the obvious: easing the transition into foster care for young people. By necessity, safety must be the first consideration when kids are removed from a living situation. There is usually no time to value any of their natural needs as children — including remembering the things that might bring them comfort during their transition, things like blankets, stuffed animals, pajamas, books. By providing these backpacks on placement, Fostering Care hopes to ease this transition, not only by giving the kids special things that belong only to them, but by ensuring that the foster families can spend some uninterrupted time together immediately after placement, getting used to one another during this traumatic time and attending to the emotional well-being of the child — without running to the store to buy diapers. And the backpacks themselves are so important, especially for the older kids. For those of us who have or have had school age kids, I think we can all appreciate how humiliating it would be for them to have to walk into school with no backpack.
The secondary goal of Fostering Care is to help people in the greater community better understand what foster care is all about. “Because these kids are living in all of our communities,” says Tara. “Often people are curious about fostering and don’t know who or what to ask. We want to break down barriers to those conversations and make fostering a more familiar thing for people. So many people care and want to help – even if they can’t foster a child in their own home, Fostering Care gives them a concrete way to help kids entering the foster care system, and that feels good.”
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