When William Paca Middle School student leaders were brainstorming on a service project, they learned from their principal, Dr. Michele Gode, that foster children often have their belongings hastily stuffed into a plastic trash bag when entering or transitioning during foster care. Filled with this new knowledge and empathy for children going through a traumatic experience, they partnered with the foster care advocacy organization “Together We Rise” to raise funds to purchase “sweet cases,” which are duffel bags filled with a pillow pet stuffed animal, a coloring book and crayons, a blanket and a hygiene kit, decorated with fun designs and encouraging words to accompany them on their journey. Students exceeded their project goal of $2,000 and raised $2,137 – enough to purchase and fill 75 sweet cases for foster children in Suffolk County.
Dr. Gode has personal experience with the infamous plastic trash bags as she and her husband have served as foster parents for the past 16 years leading to six permanent adoptions. Throughout this process, she became the inspiration for the students to help foster children.
Dr. Gode’s first experience with the plastic trash bag was with her son who arrived at her home 14 years ago as a five-year old with three large trash bags filled with a toy, filthy clothes and roaches. She recounted how the bags went into the trash immediately. Fast forward 12 years and the same plastic trash bag scenario occurred again, this time involving siblings in need of an emergency placement.
“The plastic garbage bags were a reality for my children and are a reality for every child who leaves permanent housing and enters the foster care system,” said Dr. Gode. “For some children who have had multiple placements, a new bag replaces the last bag, making that trash bag a symbol of being tossed out.”
After the duffel bags and material were purchased, students met after school to decorate and put them together.
“It was fun to make the bags, but when you think about why you are making it, it’s sad because it’s for children whose parents could not take care of them,” said Kristyne Green, an eighth grader.
Classmate Ashley Palermo added, “At the same time you are happy about what you are doing because the children may not get to experience the feeling of getting a gift from others.”
Overseeing and providing guidance on the project were school social worker Rebecca Kristiansen, guidance counselor Laurie O’Donoghue and social work intern Alysa Semken. Ms. Kristiansen said, “Dr. Gode was instrumental in spearheading this fundraiser. Her passion was infectious and the students showed great compassion and enthusiasm throughout the entire process.”
Dr. Gode added, “My experiences with the foster care system constantly remind me that there are thousands of children out there who don’t have a voice. I am excited that the students will be able to provide the duffel bags and both learn about and draw attention to this very worthy cause.”
The bags were donated to the Suffolk County Department of Social Services and will be provided to children entering or moving within the foster care system.