Comfort Cases: Filling Backpacks with Love for Foster Care Children

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By Carla Christiano

Comfort cases has no paid staff and relies only on volunteers.

Comfort cases has no paid staff and relies only on volunteers.

Imagine having to carry what you own in a trash bag. For thousands of kids in foster care nationwide that’s their daily reality.

“Think of a young child entering foster care and being handed a trash bag—that immediately sets them up for failure because they are told that’s what they’re worth. They’re not worth any more than trash,” said Terri Aufmet Stevens, Comfort Cases board member and a Virginia chapter organizer. Founded about five years ago by Rob Scheer of Rockville, Md., Comfort Cases is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that provides backpacks or duffle bags filled with the “essentials of daily life” for children entering foster care in Virginia, DC and Maryland.

Aufmet Stevens, who lives in Bristow, said her daughter Emily, who is also a board member, inspired their involvement about four years ago after hearing founder Scheer’s story. A Stonewall Jackson High School graduate, Scheer himself went through foster care. As a result of that experience, Scheer and his husband decided to adopt their four children from foster care.

“When each one of them walked through the door with a trash bag, he knew it was time to put an end to children being given trash bags,” Aufmet Stevens said. When she and her daughter saw his video explaining the origins of Comfort Cases, they knew that they had to get involved. “We want to make sure that it isn’t happening in our area,” Aufmet Stevens said.

Comfort Cases has no paid staff and relies only on volunteers. Aufmet Stevens said Girl Scout troops, baseball teams and the Dominion Woman’s club have all gathered the needed items and filled the backpacks. The Gainesville-Haymarket Rotary club has held golf tournaments to raise money for them as well each year.

Since 2012, these groups of volunteers have filled 5,000 backpacks at bi-annual packing parties. “We put together backpacks that are filled with pajamas, a blanket, stuffed animal, a toy or a coloring book, a book, and a hygiene kit so that they have their own soap, shampoo, and whatnot,” Aufmet Stevens said. The backpacks are based on age and gender. “That way a five-year-old doesn’t get something meant for a teenager,” she said.

“Generally, we have about 200 people show up at the packing party. It’s a lot of fun. It’s inspiring to see children getting so involved in doing this. They often write notes of encouragement for the children to put in the cases,” Aufmet Stevens said.

One such group of volunteers is Girl Scout Troop 1476 in western Prince William, who was searching for a troop project when they discovered Comfort Cases a few years ago, according to co-leader Kristine Westphal. “We thought that it would be a great thing because the girls could see they were helping children right here in the community and they could actively be involved,” she said.

Since 2012, volunteers have filled 5,000 backpacks at bi-annual packing parties to donate to children in foster care.

Since 2012, volunteers have filled 5,000 backpacks at bi-annual packing parties to
donate to children in foster care.

The 20 now-middle schoolers have collected toiletries, blankets and pajamas as well as helped fill the backpacks at packing parties. “My Girl Scouts identify with being able to help kids their own age and knowing that they are helping people in their own community. They are proud of themselves when they go and help,” Westphal said.

Comfort Cases distributes the packed backpacks through Social Services. “They’ve been wonderful to work with,” Aufmet Stevens said. Comfort Cases also works with SERVE to provide backpacks to children in homeless shelters so they have what they need to start over. “Any agency that contacts us for a child in need, we’ll give them Comfort Cases,” she said.

Although Aufmet Stevens’ group provides Comfort Cases to children in the northern Virginia area including Fairfax, Loudoun, Stafford and Prince William counties, they have even gone to Front Royal to deliver Comfort Cases. “We’ll go anywhere that there is a child in need,” she said.

How to Help

This May, “Coins for Cases” launched at sites around the county to collect money to purchase supplies. Starting in July, various businesses will have drop boxes to collect supplies as well. You can find Comfort Cases on Facebook or go to comfortcases.org/.

As of April 18, 2016:

  • In Virginia: There are 5,163 children in foster care.
  • In Prince William County: There are 104 children in foster care—with the youngest being 6 months and the oldest being 19.
  • City of Manassas: There are 17 children in foster care—with the youngest being 1 year old and the oldest being 18. The average length of a child in foster care is 12-14 months.
  • City of Manassas Park has 4 children in foster care.

State and Prince William County statistics provided by Phyllis Jennings-Holt, Chief of Adult, Child, and Family Services of Prince William County Department of Social Services. City of Manassas statistics provided by Melanie Trabosh, Service Program Manager of the Department of Family Service for the City of Manassas. Manassas Park statistics were provided by Randi Knights, Director of Department of Social Services for the City of Manassas Park.

Carla Christiano (cchristiano@princewilliamliving.com) is a native of Prince William County, admitted history geek and a technical writer for Unisys.

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