At the front entrance of the National Museum of the Great Lakes, I stopped at the registration table. “Welcome to United Way of Greater Toledo’s hundredth birthday party,” said a friendly face behind the table. “Make sure to check out the Scott High School string quartet and don’t forget about the Foster Care Kit build, it’ll be going on all night.”
My ears perked up. As someone who was once in foster care, I tend to take special notice when the topic comes up. I wasn’t quite sure what a Foster Care Kit was, though, so decided my first stop would be to follow the signs directing me to the project.
The area was bustling. Volunteers in matching gray shirts stood behind a line of several long folding tables handing out items to pack like soap, toothbrushes and coloring books. I stepped up to the first table in the line, one that was full of kids’ backpacks and looked ahead of me.
“So, what exactly is a Foster Care Kit?” I asked.
The volunteer smiled as she handed me a colorful bag. “It’s a duffel bag packed full of things a child just entering foster care might need. Hygiene products, coloring books, blankets, that sort of thing,” she said. “Pack as many as you want tonight – we have 2,000 bags to fill!”
I took the bag, quietly marveling. Just this bag, a seemingly simple thing, would have made my time in foster care immeasurably easier. When I moved from foster home to foster home, I would always pack up my few belongings into a large trash bag and carry it with me. As a child, using trash bags to transport my things made me sad. Even though I knew I would be taking the bag with me, it felt like my things were just garbage and that they didn’t matter. It made me feel like I didn’t matter.
I walked down the line of tables, placing items into the backpack. Perfect, I thought, picking up a blanket and a teddy bear. The first few days and weeks after moving into a new foster home were always scary. I remembered feeling devastated and alone when I wasn’t able to bring my favorite stuffed monkey with me after being removed from my home. Slowly, I placed the blanket and the bear in my bag and imagined how much better I would have felt as a child if I had been able to bring a familiar source of comfort to cuddle with me.
“When I was first placed in foster care, I didn’t have any warning. I didn’t even have time to pack my toothbrush.”
I placed more items in the bag as I moved with the line of people filling kits. Every piece of the kit seemed to have been perfectly thought-out. The last thing I placed in the bag was a coloring book. Remembering the long hours I had spent at family court, especially in the beginning of my time in foster care; I thought about how much easier it would be for a child to sit still with a fun coloring book and some brand new crayons.
My mom wasn’t a bad parent, but after an accident on the job and an extensive back surgery – the painkillers were just too hard to put down, even years after her operation. Once I was placed in foster care, she was able to get the help she needed to focus on her recovery. It took more hours spent in court than I could count, but eventually we were reunited.
As memories of my childhood flooded my mind, I zipped the backpack shut and stepped toward the last table where a volunteer was taking the completed kits and packing them into a box for transportation. The person ahead of me finished his kits and sighed. “I just hope it makes a difference. I hope this will help a kid feel a little safer and happier,” he said. “It seems like such a small thing.”
I stepped up to the table and handed over my own finished kit. “Trust me,” I said. “It’s going to make a huge difference.” I turned and headed back to the beginning of the build, ready to pack a few more bags and change a few more lives.
This post is brought to you by the generous support of 13abc, United Way’s official Centennial Media Sponsor.
*This blog post is fictional but based on true event. Story details have been added in order to provide a better understanding of the power and impact behind a United Way organized event.