What began as a small community charity drive in response to the death of 5-year-old AJ Freund last month has now received nationwide attention and enough goods to ease the transition of thousands of foster children into new homes.
Toward the end of April, Alicia Wehby of Crystal Lake co-created the “Stuff the Duffel” Facebook group with the goal of filling duffel bags full of provisions for infants, children and teenagers in foster care. Within 24 hours, about 1,000 people joined the Facebook group and, as of Thursday, more than 7,400 people are members.
Through the month of May, dozens of businesses and other groups across McHenry County served as dropoff locations for items foster children may need in the first 24 to 48 hours after they’re placed in a new home, such as clothes, pillows, toiletries, school supplies, stuffed animals and toys.
Items for babies such as diapers, wipes, teething toys, bath items and sleepers also were collected.
One of her goals was to include a blanket in every duffel bag.
“We’ll have enough blankets, for sure,” Wehby said. “We also have enough toothbrushes for the whole state.”
At the beginning of the collection, Wehby said she had been in contact with potential donors from as far away as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. But once the event received nationwide attention, Wehby said donations were coming in from as far away as California and Arizona.
Items were dropped off and sorted at a Crystal Lake warehouse Tuesday and Wednesday. Although a grand total is yet to be calculated, Wehby generously estimated that the collections will be enough to fill at least 2,500 bags.
On June 1, more than 250 volunteers will stuff and prepare every bag that was received. Including volunteers during the dropoff and sorting days, Wehby estimated that about 800 community members have assisted or will assist with the packing process.
Wehby said the Let It Be Us foster care organization in Barrington will be taking 1,000 of the bags, and arrangements are being made for the leftovers. Foster care and social service agencies in northern Illinois have been contacted but Wehby said distribution efforts may spread further south.
But after witnessing the unexpected success of Stuff the Duffel, Wehby – a mother of four children, including three former foster children whom she adopted – said she wanted to build off of the momentum and support foster children beyond the first 24 hours they’re in a new home.
“The bigger the event got, the more we realized it was needed,” Wehby said.
Last week, event organizers founded Second Bridge, a nonprofit organization to provide additional support to foster families.
According to the nonprofit’s website, when the Department of Children and Family Services determines that a child needs to be put in a foster home, it works with organizations to connect foster families with children. These agencies are the “first bridge,” but more assistance is needed.
“These families need a bridge to the community at large to help them meet the needs of the kids in their care,” according to the website. “A state-issued stipend is not enough.”
In addition to care bags, Second Bridge will work to provide continuing care items, such as new clothing or school supplies, and items for special events like birthdays.
Sometimes, foster parents will not know what they may need for the specific child coming to their care, so Second Bridge also will provide special items like specific sized clothing, shoes or even cribs, according to the website.
For information on Second Bridge, visit secondbridge.org.