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Luggage is hardly the first thing that comes to mind when considering the basic needs of a foster child.
But when Chelsie Irish saw kids transitioning from one home to another with all of their worldly possessions stuffed into a trash bag, she knew it had to be a priority. The Vashon Island resident enlisted her church and local community and started a bag drive for children in foster care, shedding light on a hitherto unanswered need.
It all started back in March. Irish and her husband were in a CPR training at Treehouse, a foster care aid and education facility in South Seattle. Passing the program was one of the many prerequisites for the couple's much anticipated second adoption. During the course of the day, Irish saw about 20 foster children being moved.
"All but two of them had their belongings in a garbage bag," she recalls. "I just thought that sent a really terrible message to vulnerable children."
The sad sight is an unfortunate staple for transitioning children. Transfers sometimes happen so suddenly that kids leave with no time to pack, and foster parents are unable to find an adequate container for their ward's items.
Irish decided to do something about it. Though she'd worked with youth groups and charities through her Latter-Day Saints church in the past, this marked the first time Irish launched a project all on her own. It was daunting, but Irish says her religious upbringing and experience with adoption fueled her determination.
"Putting your items in a garbage bag is so demeaning," she says. "Even if we helped one child, it will all be worth it."
Irish contacted Stephanie Swallow, the King County Coordinator of Fostering Together--a state-contracted organization that focuses on recruitment and retention of foster parents--to make sure collected donations would be made accessible to those who needed them. They agreed on a distribution plan and Irish started organizing.
With permission from the Seattle Stake president, Irish secured donation locations in five LDS churches. Her enthusiastic employer added another spot in the office. Bassett Furniture's Jim Copitzky donated large, old furniture boxes to serve as receptacles. Irish's friend, Jessica Peterson, designed flyers asking for gently used backpacks, duffels and bags.
By September, everything was ready to go. Irish wanted to time the drive with the back-to-school season. She figured parents shopping for their kids' supplies wouldn't mind picking up an extra backpack or donating an old one. She was right. Though the drive lasted only a few days, Irish collected 116 bags, and stragglers are still coming in.
She passed the haul onto Swallow, who was impressed with the turnout, but even more so with the drive's founder. Independent groups, like Sleep Country, had helped Fostering Together in the past, but there had never been a one-woman effort like Irish's.
"I wish I could clone her," Swallow says. "To see the need, not being a foster parent, and then to go out and do something about it is amazing."
The luggage will be partially distributed between 30 of Fostering Together's support groups, so participating parents can pick up needed items at the next monthly meeting. Swallow anticipates that 50 children will get a hold of the bags that way. The rest will go to the Treehouse for Kids warehouse--a market of clothes, toys and essentials that can be picked up for free by foster kids and parents at various times during the year. This way, families and social workers beyond the Fostering Together umbrella can have access to the bags in a pinch.
But Irish isn't done. She's already planning a bigger and better luggage drive for next year, with more church drop-off locations and possible partnerships with Seattle-area school districts and businesses.
"Every child deserves a loving home and a safe one," Irish says. "And if that's not available, we should do everything we can to make them as at ease as possible. "
Irish added a flyer with this poem--written by friend Diana Garrard--in the donated luggage, before sending it off to Fostering Together for distribution.