Luggage is hardly the first thing that comes to mind when considering a foster child's basic needs. But when Chelsie Irish saw kids transitioning from one home to another with all their worldly possessions stuffed into a trash bag, she knew it ought to be a priority. The Vashon Island resident enlisted her church and local community to start a bag drive for children in foster care, shedding light on a hitherto unmet need.
It all started in March. Irish and her husband were in a CPR training at Treehouse, a foster-care aid and education facility in South Seattle. Passing the program was one of the many prerequisites for the couple's much-anticipated second adoption. Over the course of that day, Irish saw about 20 foster children being moved. "All but two of them had their belongings in a garbage bag," she recalls. "I just thought that sent a really terrible message to vulnerable children."
The sad sight is unfortunate but common for transitioning children. Transfers sometimes happen so suddenly that kids leave without time to pack, and often foster parents are unable to find an adequate container for their ward's items.
Irish decided to do something about it. Though in the past she'd worked with youth groups and charities through her Latter-Day Saints church, this was the first time Irish had launched a project on her own. It was daunting, but Irish says her religious upbringing and experience with adoption fueled her determination. "Putting your items in a garbage bag is so demeaning," she says. "Even if we helped one child, it will all be worth it."
Irish contacted Stephanie Swallow, the King County coordinator of Fostering Together—a state-contracted organization that focuses on recruitment and retention of foster parents—to make sure collected donations would be made accessible to those who needed them. They agreed on a distribution plan, and Irish started organizing.
By September, everything was ready to go. Irish wanted to time the drive to the back-to-school season, figuring that parents shopping for kids' supplies wouldn't mind picking up an extra backpack or donating an old one. She was right. Though the drive lasted only a few days, Irish collected 116 bags, and stragglers are still coming in.
She passed the haul to Swallow, who was impressed with the turnout, but even more so with the drive's founder. "I wish I could clone her," Swallow says. "To see the need, not being a foster parent, and then to go out and do something about it is amazing."
Irish is already planning a bigger and better luggage drive for next year, with more church drop-off locations and possible partnerships with Seattle-area school districts and businesses.
"Every child deserves a loving home and a safe one," Irish says. "And if that's not available, we should do everything we can to make them as at ease as possible."