Backpacks for Kids

Never underestimate the power of a fuzzy and cuddly stuffed animal to alleviate a child’s fears and insecurities, especially at a time when they are feeling the most vulnerable.

No matter what their age, children (even teenagers) will reach for these toys and cling to them, said Mary Eleanor Farrell, who 10 years ago teamed up with a group of local women to create the Franklin County Backpacks for Kids program providing backpacks filled with overnight essentials — pajamas, socks, underwear, toothbrush, shampoo, deodorant . . . and a stuffed animal — for children who are removed from their homes by the Department of Social Services due to abuse, abandonment or drug-related causes and placed in foster care.

Farrell has never seen any of the some 1,000 children who have received these backpacks since 2002, but she’s heard many of the stories.

“They say whenever these kids come in, they’ve just been taken from their mother, and no matter how good or bad they had it, it’s still upsetting . . . so when they open that backpack and see that toy, they grab it,” said Farrell.

Often all of this is taking place in the middle of the night, which makes it even more stressful for the children and complicated for the foster parents, she noted. There’s no notice for the foster family, so they don’t have some of the items the child will need — namely pajamas and clothes for the next day.

Sherry Smith, MSW, 20th Judicial Circuit manager, describes the Backpacks for Kids program as “invaluable” for exactly those reasons.

“Some children come into foster care with no personal belongings,” she said. “The backpacks contain size-specific pajamas, undergarments, hygiene products, a stuffed toy for younger children and a book or journal . . .

“Not only does the Backpack Program meet an emergency physical need, it also meets an emotional need of some children. The child has something of his or her own to take with them to the foster home.”

Even the backpacks alone have been much appreciated, said Farrell, noting many of the children were carrying their things around in a trash bag.

Three Civic Groups Join Forces

It was a presentation by JoAnn McAnally of Crystal City about a similar program started in Jefferson County that got the ball rolling for the Franklin County Backpacks for Kids.

Farrell was at that presentation, along with Eileen Chalk and Susie Blatt. All three women were members of three civic groups — the then-St. John’s Mercy Hospital Auxiliary, Tri-County Medical Society Alliance (a group for physicians’ spouses) and P.E.O. Chapter LV.

The women wanted to create a Backpacks program for Franklin County’s foster children, so they took the idea to the members of those three groups and dozens of volunteers stepped forward to support the cause.

Each group took responsibility for a different age bracket — Tri-County Medical Alliance took the older children, sizes 12 up through men’s/women’s XL; P.E.O Chapter LV took the younger children, sizes 3T through 10; and the hospital auxiliary provided bags filled with items for babies, premies through size 24 months/2T.

Initially the smallest size stocked was for 3-month-old babies, but as the need arose for premies, the program added them to its list.

Volunteers purchase the backpacks or diaper bags and all of the items to go in them, using their own money. They are given a size, gender and list of items to include.

The volunteers often enjoy the experience of shopping for items to put in the backpacks, said Farrell, especially the baby bags.

“They shop like these are their grandkids,” she remarked.

As the backpacks are given out, volunteers are asked to restock them.

“It’s a big project,” admits Susie Blatt, noting the total cost for each filled backpack can range from $35 to $60 depending on the sizes of clothes and opportunity to shop sale/clearance racks.

According to Smith, Franklin County Children’s Division has approximately 265 children in alternative care with the majority due to drug-related activity by parents.

Other Groups Lend Support

Early on, Backpacks for Kids received financial support from local groups like Kids in Cars (Harrison’s Hope), the Optimists and Jaycees.

“That made all the difference,” recalled Farrell. “We thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re in heaven!’ ”

This was useful because often the need to restock backpacks came in lots of 20 to 25 at a time, Farrell explained.

“We like to keep four of each size, boy and girl, in stock,” she commented.

Only new items are included in the backpacks and volunteers leave the tags on so the children know the items are new, said Farrell.

Over the years as other civic groups have learned of the program, they have stepped up to lend support.

Members of the Gamma Kappa chapter of the Delta Kappa Gamma teachers sorority donate new pajamas each December as part of their Christmas party.

Also at Christmastime, members of the Piecemakers quilting club donate handmade Christmas stockings, which is a huge treat for all of the children, said Farrell.

“Many of them have never had a Christmas stocking,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine.”

Local Girl Scouts donate items to fill the stockings, and Santa distributes the filled stockings to foster and adopted children at the annual Franklin County Children’s Division Christmas party, said Smith.

Boy Scouts have helped too — one, Kyle Saunders, made it his Eagle Scout project to build a shelving unit at the Children’s Division to store all of the filled backpacks that are labeled with the size and gender.

Volunteers donate handmade child-size quilts and baby afghans to go along with each backpack, as well as hand-knitted baby caps for the infants who are removed.

Royal Neighbors of American donated teddy bears.

Dentists donated toothbrushes.

Churches of all denominations have provided support in various ways too.

Once an anonymous donor provided enough funds so that all of the children would be able to attend Six Flags St. Louis and purchase food.

It would be impossible to list all of the volunteers who have made the Backpacks for Kids program so successful these 10 years, said Farrell, but anyone who has ever helped should know what a difference it made for these children and the foster families.

The effort is always deeply appreciated, said Smith.

“Franklin County Children’s Division is very thankful for the Backpack for Kids Program and our gratitude cannot adequately be described for the generosity and support provided by Mary Eleanor Farrell and this program,” she commented.

Spawns Other Efforts

The Backpacks for Kids program also has led to other projects and efforts to benefit children in foster care, including coat drives.

“Buying a winter coat can eat up about half of the annual clothing budget that a foster parent has for a child,” said Mary Lovern, of the Tri-County Medical Society Alliance, who has taken over for Eileen Chalk in managing the group’s role in the Backpacks program.

Also, the Combined Christian Choir once took up a collection to start a fund so children in foster care could purchase musical instruments or receive music lessons.

And volunteers Karen Calvin and Bob and Bonnie Soetebier have donated office space so foster parents can meet to swap or store items.

One thing that the volunteers would like eventually to figure out to provide is photos of the children.

“These kids don’t have any pictures of themselves, even school pictures,” said Farrell.

Want to Get Involved?

Farrell is the volunteer spokesperson for Backpacks for Kids, often giving presentations on the program to area groups or individuals wanting to get involved.

Anyone wanting to learn more or to make a donation can contact Farrell at 636-239-7300.

Organizers say they don’t see an end to the need.

“There are always new children, and the stories would just boggle your mind,” said Farrell.

On the other hand, there are many heartwarming stories about volunteer efforts that bring some balance.

“That’s why I keep doing this,” said Farrell.

“It feeds your soul, absolutely. It keeps you going knowing there are children out there suffering through no fault of their own.”