Fiona Ma for State Assembly
News

Volunteers help fill bags for children in foster care

Imagine having to flee suddenly from your home and leave behind everything you own.

"Just imagine how traumatic this would be for a child," said Karina Souquette, director of foster care at Bienvenidos, a nonprofit organization dedicated to healing children and strengthening families.

Thanks to a local effort called My Stuff Bags, hundreds of children at Bienvenidos each year receive a bag full of brand-new donated goods including toys, toothbrushes, coloring books, crayons, clothing and more.

"The children love these bags," Souquette said. "Sometimes this might be the first thing they've ever owned."

Souquette was among more than 200 volunteers who gathered Friday at the Fourth Annual Do Good Stuff-a-Thon at the My Stuff Bags Foundation in Westlake Village. Their goal was to stuff 5,000 bags that will be distributed to more than 35 agencies in the United States that support abused and neglected children.

"Cash-strapped agencies that rescue children can provide food and safe shelter, but they simply can't consistently offer the children basic necessities like toiletries and clothing and school supplies, or comforts like a cuddly blanket, stuffed animal and fun new toy," said Janeen Holmes, president and CEO of the My Stuff Bags Foundation.

"We fill that gap," Holmes said. "But we couldn't do it without the support of so many good people who donate time, funding and new stuff for the kids."

My Stuff Bags was established in 1998 to meet the immediate psychological and physical needs of children who must be rescued from abuse, neglect and abandonment and who often enter crisis shelters with empty hands and heavy hearts, Holmes said.

"Caregivers describe children arriving in just a dirty T-shirt, with nothing of their own," Holmes said. "My Stuff Bags demonstrate to the children who receive them that many people care as they endure a difficult time. Each bag is filled with a variety of donated items and lovingly packed by volunteers."

In honor of May as National Foster Care Month, volunteers from the Toy Industry Foundation as well as California legislators worked together Friday to assemble the bags. Goods were donated by numerous companies including Educational Insights, Jakks Pacific Inc., Puzzled Inc., Spin Master Ltd., Piggy Wiggies, Cloud B and Funrise.

"The Toy Industry Foundation, in addition to providing more than $525,000 in grant funding to the My Stuff Bags Foundation, has also provided more than 400,000 toys to this wonderful organization," said Jean Butler, executive director of the Toy Industry Foundation.

With so many toy companies in Southern California, the stuff-a-thon is an opportunity to bring the toy community together for a hands-on volunteer experience, Butler said.

"Many of the companies here today donate toys and money year-round to the Toy Industry Foundation, so it is very rewarding for them to be part of the stuff-a-thon, where they can stand side-by-side and do good work for children entering the foster care system," Butler said. "The items in these bags are often the only belongings these children have, so the bags are very special."

State Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, commended the toy industry for donating tens of thousands of items for the cause.

"It's great that they donate so much for those who have so little," she said.

Ma also recognized the rise in volunteers from 50 the first year to 200 this year.

"There are very compassionate people here in Ventura County," she said. "The community understands this issue and knows it's a worthy cause."

State Sen. Tony Strickland, R-Moorpark, has volunteered for the annual bag stuffing event since its inception.

"This is a great cause," he said. "There's nothing better than giving a child a smile. To be a part of this is amazing and humbling. I will continue to do this every year for as long as they have it."