Suitcases4Kids Helps Michigan Foster Care Children

A program called Guardian Angels Suitcases4Kids provides suitcases and other items, including stuffed animals, coloring books, and toiletries, for Michigan foster care children to help them adjust and cope with their sometimes numerous moves between residences while they are temporary wards of the courts.

From the Lansing State Journal:

"CHARLOTTE — When Jenn DeLeeuw started to lay the groundwork for Guardian Angels Suitcases4Kids, the outreach effort was driven by what she calls a [']devastating['] image.

The Charlotte mother, 29, said she remembers reading a story written by a teenager raised in the foster care system.

[']She’d leave each foster family dragging her belongings behind her in a trash bag and she admitted feeling like trash,['] said DeLeeuw. [']I realized that most of these kids go from home to home with a trash bag filled with all of their stuff.[']

In Eaton County that may soon change thanks to the newly-formed Guardian Angels. The grass-roots effort aims to provide each foster child in the area with a suitcase or duffel bag of their own.

For DeLeeuw the effort is a newly-discovered passion aimed at helping the county’s foster children maintain a sense of self-worth and dignity. It also hits close to home.

This January, Jenn, her husband, Matt, and their son, Ty, 4, became a foster family, taking in their first child with a sudden call from the state’s Department of Human Services.

[']We just knew right away that it was what we were meant to do, what we were supposed to do,['] said the 2003 Charlotte High School graduate. [']We accepted right away.[']

The decision has been life changing for the DeLeeuw family, who are now willing to accept up to three foster children in their home at a time.

[']We know that we, as a family, could bring in other children and raise them as our own for the time that they’re in our care,['] said DeLeeuw. [']Maybe we could help them through some of their struggles in their life.[']

Guardian Angels is part of that, she added. The suitcases, duffel bags and care packages, which will include items like toothbrushes, stuffed animals and coloring books and crayons, are meant to be a comfort.

[']Maybe they’ll start realizing that they’re not worthless or realize that the world isn’t that scary or doesn’t have to be that scary for them,['] she said.

Leah Overmire is a Foster Home Licensing Specialist with the Eaton County Department of Human Services. She said there is an average of 110 children in the county’s foster care system at any given time. Many of them enter the system with very little to call their own.

“Sometimes they’re coming from homes that are deemed unsafe and all of their belongings have to be left behind,” Overmire said. “Sometimes parents refuse to send their belongings and sometimes we had to remove them on very short notice and their items haven’t had a chance to catch up with them yet.”

Local Support

Overmire said DeLeeuw’s effort will fill a real need in Eaton County. The concept is something DHS workers have been talking about for years, she added, but could never quite bring to fruition.

[']When Jennifer began working through the licensing process she began to reach out to us with a passion for helping these children during this time of transition and had some very similar ideas to ours, but actually had ideas to get the financial backing to get this program up and running,['] said Overmire. [']She took the very small pieces and parts of a vision we had, put it all together with her ideas and made it happen.[']

DeLeeuw said her husband, owner of Carl Reck Jewelers in downtown Charlotte, has been supportive of her start up from day one.

[']It’s all heartbreaking,['] said Matt. [']At first, I was shocked about the stories of these kids being pulled from their homes with nothing. This is about kids. I think whenever children are involved it pulls at your heartstrings.[']

DeLeeuw credits her husband with suggesting that she start an on-line Go Fund Me account to raise the $1,850 needed to apply for non-profit status.

The favorable response has been thanks to the Charlotte community, she said. Within eight days of establishing her Go Fund Me account, DeLeeuw had the funding she needed.

DeLeeuw established a Web site and got more support. Area residents offered donations of bags, items and cash, to help her get started.

[']The community just walked into the project so quickly and eagerly that it’s amazing to me,['] said DeLeeuw.

DeLeeuw ended up getting such a response that she expanded the effort, clearing out about 900-square-feet of space above her family’s jewelry store on Charlotte’s S. Cochran Avenue to create an office and warehouse space for Guardian Angels.

The second-floor space now houses racks of donated clothing for foster children, new suitcases and bags, and items to fill the care bags with. DeLeeuw said the effort will now include an opportunity for foster kids in need of things to wear to visit her office and secure them.

[']If a child’s removed in the middle of the night, they’re the ones who can’t bring anything,['] said DeLeeuw. [']To walk into a house at the age of 14 not knowing anybody, just being ripped from your birth family, would be insanely scary.[']

DeLeeuw said donations have not slowed down in the weeks since she began the effort. Within the last week, Guardian Angels officially began offering its services to Eaton County’s foster care system.

Overmire said she believes the program will be an asset to everyone involved in the county’s foster care system.

[']She’s giving our foster parents...the assistance needed to say, ‘Yes, I can take placement of these children,’ and she is giving the children we serve the comfort, dignity and resources they need to feel just a little more safe during an unsure time in their lives,['] she said.

So far, the DeLeeuw said the effort shows no signs of slowing down. [']We had absolutely no idea that it was going to blow up like this,['] she said. [']I have tons of space that’s filling up quickly. I didn’t realize it would have such an impact on me either.[']"