- - Tuesday, May 14, 2024

When we think of childhood, we often envision a safe place where love, warmth and security abound. But for some children, their reality is far from this idyllic image. When circumstances force them out of their homes and into foster care, they face a traumatic upheaval that can leave lasting scars. One poignant symbol of this experience is the black trash bag — the vessel into which their meager belongings are hastily stuffed.

Imagine being that child: abruptly taken from the only home and parents you’ve ever known, thrust into a new environment with strangers who will now be taking care of you. No matter how unsafe or unhealthy your previous situation might have been, the sudden separation is devastating. The trash bag provided to you by the case manager, although seemingly innocuous, amplifies the feeling of being discarded and unwanted. It becomes a tangible representation of loss — a stark reminder that you’re being tossed away.

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These children, already grappling with upheaval, feel disposable. Some bounce from one foster home to another, their sense of stability shattered. Yet, in this turmoil, they deserve dignity and respect. Just as we want our own children to feel cherished, these young souls yearn for the same.

Thankfully, there are dedicated advocates and philanthropic organizations that recognize this need. Reclaimed for Good, for example, works year-round to curate “Love Luggage.” Volunteers come together to transform ordinary suitcases into something extraordinary. Brightly painted, colorful “works of heART” and encouraging messages adorn each piece. However, it’s not just about aesthetics; it’s about filling those bags with essentials for a foster child’s first night in their new home.

Picture a child arriving at a foster home — a whirlwind of emotions, uncertainty and fear. They may not have much, but someone has ensured they have brand-new basics: toothbrushes, underwear, pajamas and perhaps a book or a stuffed animal. These seemingly small items become lifelines during the hardest moments of their lives. They whisper, “You matter. You’re not alone.”

SEE ALSO: ‘Every child is a wanted child’: What one Texas church is doing to help solve the foster care crisis

A couple of years ago, my family walked through a particularly tough weekend with a little girl who had to leave her home rather abruptly. She was completely devastated. Amid the turmoil, she received a piece of Love Luggage, filled with essentials and special items that got us through the first couple of emotional days together. I’ll never forget her excitement saying, “Look, Mrs. Jennifer! They gave me a present!” On such a tough day, to see her face brighten as she explored the contents of the baggage is something I’ll cherish forever. 

And here’s the beautiful part: proper luggage, unlike a garbage bag, isn’t disposable. Ideally, if a child moves to another foster home, they take their cherished bag with them. It becomes a tangible reminder that someone cared enough to create something beautiful just for them.

The benefits of providing luggage to foster children extend beyond the practicality of transporting their belongings. It’s a powerful affirmation of their value. Unlike the humiliating experience of carrying your life’s possessions in a trash bag, receiving special luggage signals to a child that they are seen and deserving of dignity, directly countering feelings of worthlessness that can arise from their circumstances. It communicates that their current situation doesn’t define their worth or their future and there are people out there who believe in their potential and see them as valuable.

We can turn heartbreak into hope

The nearly 400,000 American children and youth living in foster care deserve to grow up in safe and loving homes devoted to their health, happiness and future success. National Foster Care Month, observed each year during May, is a time to honor the brave kids in foster care, who too often endure challenges that no child should ever have to confront. 

It’s also a time to express gratitude for the dedicated kinship and foster parents who care for these children during their times of greatest need. From my personal experience as a foster parent, I have found that creating a nurturing and secure home environment is one of the greatest gifts someone can give a child. No matter the circumstances, these precious children have one thing in common — it’s not their fault. They need a safe place to live while their biological families work toward stability, rehabilitation and reunification. 

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While not everyone may be called to open their homes as foster families, there are meaningful ways all of us can support these precious kids and the families who care for them: 

  • Educate yourself and others about the realities and challenges faced by children in foster care and the foster care system. Understanding leads to empathy, and empathy fosters positive change.
  • Help to spread awareness and compassion, advocating for the rights, dignity and well-being of foster children.
  • Volunteer with local foster care organizations, donating essential items. Or simply lend a listening ear to foster families and be intentional about expressing gratitude for what they do. Every gesture of love and support matters.
  • Show your support in small yet impactful ways. Become an advocate for improvement within the foster care system, particularly as it relates to managing the difficult transition from one home to another. Children deserve better than a trash bag during such a traumatic and heartbreaking experience.

All human beings have an innate desire to be known and loved. Those who grow up in the foster care system, however, often feel unwanted and overlooked. Let us do what we can to recognize their worth, advocate for their dignity and ensure that every child, no matter their circumstances, feels valued. Something as simple as replacing a black trash bag with a piece of painted luggage can mean the world to a child in need.

Jennifer Kritner is Vice President of Retail and Company Culture for Unclaimed Baggage, the nation’s only merchant of unclaimed and lost airline baggage and its contents. Kritner also serves as the director of the retailer’s charitable foundation, Reclaimed for Good, which works year-round to curate “Love Luggage,” repurposed suitcases full of essentials and fun items for foster children. Brightly painted with uplifting phrases, these bags replace the garage bags often used to transport belongings and serve to bring a smile to a child’s face on a really hard day.

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