Comfort Cases, Rockville
What does it mean about your cherished possessions if they get shoved into a big plastic trash bag when you move? What might it mean about you? Trash bags are used to collect garbage and other unwanted items. They are not for items that are special or of value and yet this is how thousands of children in our nation's foster care system go from place to place! Why? Maybe its for convenience, efficiency, or for sheer cost, but what is the cost to the mind, heart, and soul of the child who is carrying it? ...
Approximately 437,500 children live in foster care today. Some have brief interactions in the system before they are reunited with parents and others age through it. There are a million reasons why a child may be placed 'in the system,' but trust that no child is born asking to be. What child would prefer it to belonging in a stable and loving family? Being in foster care happens TO children, NOT BECAUSE of them. So what does it say when adults in charge move children in crisis with trash bags? It says they are and their few treasured possessions are 'less than' or unworthy of everyday dignities by virtue of their (unchosen) status as a child in need of foster care.
Five years ago, a former child of and now parent from the foster care system, Robert Scheer and his husband Reece founded Comfort Cases to save trash bags for garbage and bring real dignity to children! In a very short time, this organization has taken off and has really made a difference in the lives of so many children! What originally started as a "comfort case", a backpack filled with essential and comfort items (discussed later in detail), soon turned into the bigger vision of having each comfort case include a large brand new duffle that would stay with each child throughout their journey to a forever home. Comfort Cases has worked with agencies in over 39 states and has helped over 30,000 youth with more than 11,000 cases and keeps growing! They have earned great publicity and awards and have benefited from some generous corporate sponsorships. Much of the day-to-day work and donations, however, comes from everyday volunteers and donors.
I knew my nephew Grady, who worked on a packing project at his elementary school, valued this organization and with its headquarters so close, I wanted to see what it was all about. When I reported for my 2-hour shift, I didn't know what I'd see or how my time would be used. To my great surprise (though I didn't know how lucky I was at the time), Robert lead the volunteer orientation and tour that began the session. You know I love when organizations start their volunteer experiences off with a tour and/or education session -- it tells you right from the start what the problem is, what the solution is, and why you are there. It hooks you right away and makes you feel immediately invested. (Why don't ALL nonprofits do this spiel?) Who better to inspire us than the founder? Robert wasn't on The Ellen Show for nothing -- he conveys an very compelling, passionate, and slightly horrifying story and his message is consistent: These children don't pick this life and they all deserve dignity and stability!
As we toured the halls, we stopped at each room along the way. Each contained an integral component of the comfort case: First there were the backpacks themselves that would host items of comfort to wary children in crisis and transition. Bright colors and notable characters filled the shelves and I thought of my children who would have loved the choices! Then, to pass the time (red tape produces much waiting), there was a room filled with boxed coloring books, journals, crayons, pencils, and pens. (It's important to Robert that older children are able to journal and express themselves.) The next room with tall shelves held neatly tied pajama sets that would ease a child's first night in a new place. Each set is brand new with tags. This, as Robert explains, is because many children have never had anything new to them and this special gift would demonstrate they were special. Two other rooms overflowed with items Robert said were okay to be gently used or previously loved - books and stuffed animals. These items, in his opinion, were better when used and shared (I think he actually hugged himself as he shared this philosophy!). Then, near the workspace, there was a room filled with toiletries that beat any hotel storage closet I've ever seen! The real pride and joy came as we passed the shelves housing the newly acquired extra large duffle bags - the ones that would replace those trash bags forever!!
The 'to do' list for today was for me to fold, roll, and ribbon tie fleece blankets that were are part of every case. If folded, rolled, and tied a certain way, it fit perfectly into the bottom of the backpack. I worked with 6 other women and our time together felt very personable and friendly. I love the conversations that take place while hands are busy! Time passed very quickly and I regretted not being able to stay longer but I am certain Comfort Cases will be a great place for me to spend more time. This organization is strong, its leadership is inspiring and supportive, and the cause -- well ... I'm choked up!
My Takeaways: (1) No matter how far I go or how many years pass, my heart and passion keeps returning me to the child welfare system. Professionally, I've perennially contemplated legal opportunities in the field and personally have teamed up with a county social worker on countless community projects. Now, again, I find a large piece of my heart with Comfort Cases. Is this the draw I thought I might find at the beginning of this journey? I'll have to see. (2) Another reoccurring theme -- The 'us/we' vs. 'them' mentality. What we want and do for us doesn't always have to be done for them. What we won't tolerate for ourselves, might be okay for them. It's a kind of class system or model of division that we adopt and/or accept as okay; a justification for making something acceptable for one group but not for another. Does it happen so we can feel more important? Are we unable to acknowledge the inequities or are we possibly guilty of thinking that is what they deserve? The largest disparities in our society seem to center around access to food, education, and healthcare and are sometimes linked with their ability to work, their mental health, the color of their skin, and where they were born. There are other subtle differences as well. Is the use of trash bag for them just another example? Dozens of kids have come in and out of my house for sleepovers and NONE have brought their belongings in a trash bag (worst case, a lululemon bag)! Apart from what might sound like socialistic banter, shouldn't dignity be a standard form of treatment across socio-economic boundaries no matter who they are? Why would anyone or any agency show such indignity to an innocent child by using a trash bag to transport their belongings? What must the child think? What does that say to those who are asked to care for them? They are less? (3) A huge takeaway was something Robert shared during the orientation. He said that many children take offense to being called a "foster kid" or "foster child." As it was explained to him, the children don't chose for their biological parents to be unable to care of them, it happens to them. Replace a label with a description and it is more palatable: Instead of a "foster child," it can be "a child living in foster care." It makes perfect sense and would be a very innocent mistake. Don't think I didn't rework my resume and double check this blog to avoid an inadvertent mistake. Thank you! (4) Lastly, like all children, we need to invest in children living in foster care while they are young and in the system as things often get worse, not better, when they become adults. Here are some unfortunate facts: Over 23,000 young adults who age out of the system leave without having a permanent connection to a stable family; Only 3% of aged-out young adults attend college; Only half of those who aged out of the system are employed at the age of 24; and approximately 71% of all young women who aged out of the system become pregnant by the age of 21. See why this can't be an us and them problem?