“There are no words for how grateful we are. When these amazing ladies brought the first bags of gifts for the foster children in our care, all I could do was cry,” said Yesenia Wilkinson, program manager with the National Youth Advocate Program.
Since mid-November, the Christ Child Society of South Bend’s new program, Foster Hope, has put together totes with personalized name tags for over 160 local children ages newborn-17 who are served by NYAP and Benchmark Family Services.
In addition to accessing a free supply of new shoes, boots, winter coats, books and clothing, as every child is welcome to receive from the Christ Child Society, children in foster care with the agencies are now being given duffel bags stuffed with toiletries, pajamas, slippers, fleece blankets and age-appropriate comfort items like stuffed animals.
The new outreach is the brainchild of Susan Coulter, who became involved with Christ Child Society about five years ago when her youngest son became a student at Marian High School, Mishawaka. Trained as a speech pathologist, she had been able to stay home while her three boys were younger. As they grew older, she began looking for a service opportunity. It quickly became a passion.
Coulter said she loves that the ladies of the Christ Child Society provide high-quality clothing to the neediest children and that their work is appreciated in the community. For example, when a principal learned students in her school were being bullied because of their shabby clothes, the administrator sat down and wrote them a referral to the Christ Child Society. The next day, she reported, the students’ classmates were asking, “Where did you get those cool shoes?”
In her role as receptionist at the new Christ Child Society location in Town & Country Shopping Centre, Coulter fielded a request from the NYAP to become a referring agency. Instead of having them fill out the necessary paperwork, Coulter took the director on a tour so she could see the shoes selected by the “sole sisters,” the books every young Christ Child Society child receives as well as the full scope of what the Christ Child Society provides. Expecting a cluttered thrift-store setup, the director said she was overwhelmed by the quality and organization of the clothing.
As Coulter learned more about NYAP’s work with vulnerable children, she began to envision Foster Hope — a program through which every child coming into therapeutic foster care could swiftly receive a few special items to call their own.
“These children are the neediest of the needy,” she said. “They’ve already been traumatized so much. I wanted better for them than a few items stuffed into a garbage bag.” At Ikea she found large, colorful totes, which she fluffs to look even more beautiful before the gifts are added.
Although the new program significantly expands the annual budget of the Christ Child Society, which is funded entirely by donations, the organization’s board of directors unanimously approved Coulter’s proposal to enter into a charitable relationship with NYAP. That meant expanding the age of children the society usually serves to include teenagers and procuring age-appropriate gifts and toiletries. At the suggestion of caseworkers, those items include a shower caddy to keep each child’s personal items separate.
For a child who has abruptly had to leave home, Coulter learned, it is very reassuring to have things specially selected for him or her, guided by what the caseworker is able to find out regarding sizes and favorite colors.
Foster children are often incredulous when they receive their duffel bags, she said. One who happened to be in the office for an appointment when some totes were dropped off asked, “What’s this for? It can’t be for me. You’ve got to be kidding!” Another foster child refused to let go of her Build-A-Bear cat that was dressed in office attire; it went everywhere with her.
Children often put on their brand-new shoes right away. If something doesn’t fit, they bring it back to exchange it and so the too-small shoes can bless another child.
Because of the pandemic, the Christ Child Society had to modify several processes. Usually, the University of Notre Dame women’s basketball team sponsors a Teddy Bear Toss during one of its games each year, to which fans bring stuffed animals for the organization to give away. When that didn’t happen, Coulter searched and found a request for donations on the Build-A-Bear website. Filling out the form was so time-consuming that she modified her initial plan and instead asked for the maximum 1,000 Build-A-Bears to donate to the foster children. She got them: three pallets’ worth.
Coulter and Foster Hope co-chairman Patty Banet have set up a table at the Christ Child Society location. There, they assemble the duffels. Other volunteers often leave special donations on that table. Coulter put one such item, a Spider-Man toy, into a 5-year-old boy’s duffel bag recently. When she dropped it off, the caseworker exclaimed, “How did you know he loves Spider-Man?!”
Like the entire Foster Hope program, “It was a godwink,” said Coulter.
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