Rhode Island Spotlight: Telling Foster Kids They Matter

If you think you have a lot of wrapping to do around the holidays, all you have to do is watch 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 last 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.

“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,” Kim Gagne said. “And they talked about how they only have a few minutes because usually it’s a very escalated situations when they remove kids. So they’ll grab a trash bag, and throw those child’s belongings into that trash bag.”

That exact scenario happened when they went to pick up their son.

“We loaded him in the car, we were getting everything ready 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.”

That moment planted the seeds for a project that began with 100 bags four years ago; it grew to 1,000 in 2014 and 2,500 in 2015.

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.

“We know that for a lot of these children, this is all they’re going to open on Christmas morning. That’s why it’s so important to us to never jeopardize the quality of the items in the bag,” McBride said. “The gifts would be something that we would give to our own children, or even better quality than we’d give 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 each 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, who 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 of the 2,500 they produced this year.

The project has evolved into a complicated, but relatively smooth operation, as teams of people showed up on various days and nights — first to begin wrapping the donated items. Later in the week, the bagging team went into action, double-checking that the right items go into each duffel.

Finally there was a triple check — including the logging of a barcode — to make sure each bag got to where it was going.

“The gift is one thing, but to give a gift that has someone’s name monogrammed on it and spelled exactly right and to get the gender right and the age right and the gifts right — it’s very complicated to make sure that that happens,’’ Kim Gagne said.

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.

Kim Gagne 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.

“Our main goal is to let children in foster care know that the church as a whole and their community cares for them. They’re not forgotten and the way they carry their personal things around really does matter to us.’’

If you want to see the video version of this story go to RhodeIslandSpotlight.org. If you know of a person or organization who you think deserves the Spotlight, send an email to jim@RhodeIslandSpotlight.org

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