Last month 2,500 foster children in Rhode Island and Massachusetts received duffel bag full of gifts with their name monogrammed on the side - compliments of an all-volunteer, non-profit organization that began working on this year’s holiday delivery last summer. Bags of Hope was founded by a couple whose experience adopting five children of their own drives them to want all foster children find a permanent home.
Click here for more information about Bags of Hope.
If you think you have a lot of wrapping to do around the holidays - come take a look as hundreds of volunteers gather over several weeks leading up to Christmas to wrap, assemble and distribute more than 10,000 gifts. The destination: foster children in Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts.
Welcome to Bags of Hope, a non-profit volunteer organization that this year provided 2,500 monogrammed and customized bags, full of gifts to children awaiting adoption. The program was started four years by Kim Gagne and her husband John after they adopted their first child - a boy - five years ago.
Kim: ``We were amazed at the stories the social workers told of going into kids’ homes and removing them from their biological families because of all different reasons. And they talked about how so many kids…they only have a few minutes because usually it’s a very escalated situations when they remove kids, and so they’ll grab a trash bag, throw those child’s belongings into that trash bag.’’
John: ``The things that are theirs, are in a garbage bag.’’
Kim: ``We loaded him in the car, we were getting everything to go and the foster mom came to the door and she said: `Oh I’ve got one more thing for you’ and she handed me a trash bag, with all of his belongings in it.’’
John: ``When you look at the whole picture about what’s happening to those kids and the place of vulnerability that they’re in, the trauma of what they’re going through, a lot of times either not feeling loved or wanted - and then you take what’s important to them and now it’s disguised as trash.’’
That moment planted the seeds for a project that began with 100 bags four years ago; it grew to 1,000 last year and 2,500 this year.
Rachel McBride came on board two years ago, handling the administrative end of the operation. She organizes the gifts by gender and age, and makes sure each matches - exactly - the child it is supposed to go to.
Rachel: ``We know that a lot of these children, this is all they’re going to open on Christmas morning - and that’s why it’s so important to us to never jeopardize the quality of the items in the bag. They would be something that we would give to our own children, or even better quality than our own children.’’
Ground Zero is His Providence Church, located in Seekonk, and the project relies entirely on volunteers and donations. This year two dozen churches across the region have members who donated $25 for an ornament with a child’s name and age on it. That pays for a monogrammed bag and all the gifts inside.
Then, there are the bags: thousands of them. The first year Frank and Sandy Kowalik offered to donate and monogram each bag. The couple, which owns Sandy Lane Sports in Warwick, knew the Gagnes from church and volunteered when they heard about Bags of Hope. When the numbers grew dramatically the Kowaliks provided bags at cost and still continue to monogram every one of the bags. It takes an average of five minutes to complete each one.
At 2,500 bags, you do the math on how much of their time they’ve donated.
Jim: ``Why do you do it?’’
Frank: ``I think it’s the right thing to do. My father raised me to help people who need help. And these kids need help.’’
Sandy: ``Every now and then I’ll think about and maybe say a little prayer as I go through each kid and just wonder about where they are, what they might be going through.’’
The project has evolved into a complicated, but relatively smooth operation, as teams of people show up on various days and nights - first to begin wrapping the donated items. Later in the week, the bagging team goes into action, double-checking that the right items go into each duffel.
Finally there is a triple check - including the logging of a barcode - to make sure each bag gets to where it’s going.
Kim: ``The gift is one thing, but to give a gift that has someone’s name monogrammed on it and get the spelling exactly right and the gender right and the age right and the gifts right, it’s very complicated to make sure that that happens.’’
Rachel: ``It hasn’t been about toys and objects as much as it’s been about comfort items. These blankets are really important to the kids and bath products that they can call their own, because when they go into a home, a foster home, they usually just get to use whatever the foster family has provided for them.’’
The spelling of many of the names poses a challenge. It’s not Joe, Jane and Sue anymore.
John: ``You might have a J’Aneya and it’s spelled like nothing you’ve ever seen before with an apostrophe somewhere in there and you don’t know. You can’t go into Benny’s or Wal-Mart or wherever and get the little license plate for your bike that says J’Aneya with the apostrophe in the right place, you can’t find that. And that gift is sitting there with their name, spelled right, with things in there just for them. It does something inside of them. And that’s one of the stories was, the little girl runs over, and she grabs the bag and says: `They even spelled my name right.’’’
Rachel: ``I see these kids names all day - I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about these kids. The names stick with you and it’s a blessing to have that piece of it, to be able to enter each child by name, to be able to look at who their siblings are, to be able to see that information. But it’s something that keeps you up at night.’’
Planning for the project begins every year in August and the number of bags has grown exponentially because social workers tell each other about the impact Bags of Hope is having. We were there the day volunteers delivered a van full of duffel bags to the DCYF office in Bristol. Bags of Hope also provided lunch to the workers as a small thanks for what they are doing. That scene was repeated at nine regional offices in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Rachel: ``’Cause they care so deeply about these kids and they’re so overwhelmed with their own caseloads, so it’s nice to take just a small piece out of their planning, out of their time, just this small piece that they can hand over something to these kids for Christmas.’’
Kim: ``So many times down the road I will recognize a name and remember a story: Oh yeah, this child specifically asked for the game of checkers.’’
Jim: ``‘Cause you got that through the social worker.’’
Kim: ``Yeah, the social worker will say oh this child has really been asking for this. So they’ll give us a little something about the child. This child has special needs, or this child is deaf. Or this child has three siblings that are all close in age, can we do something different?’’
Kim says there is a larger goal for this project: bringing awareness about the number of children in foster care and that the community as a whole can make a difference placing the boys and girls.
Kim: ``Our main goal is to let children in foster care know that the church as a whole and your community cares for you. You’re not forgotten and the way you carry your personal things around really does matter to us. The bag is beautiful and wonderful but the bigger picture is we want to see kids placed in families. We have 400 plus kids in Massachusetts right now waiting for adoptive homes, we have over…like around 200 kids in Rhode Island waiting for adoptive homes. Our goal is to start changing those numbers. John and I try to go church-to-church saying: `If you take one child, if one family in this church adopts one child, we can wipe out this problem. Foster care is hard. Being in foster care is hard. And every time that I get a little discouraged or a little overwhelmed with what we’ve taken on, something really beautiful comes along. A child will come across me and say: `Who was praying for me? Who had my ornament? Who had me in mind?’ And that’s what changes it for us. That’s what keeps us going.’’
In Seekonk, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.