But thanks to the Women’s Club of Hollister, when they arrive they will have something of their own: Comfort and Care backpacks, filled with some essentials to help them settle into a new life.
The bags are designed for different ages, from teens to newborns. For children, it might contain, among other things, a towel and washcloth, a few days’ changes of clothes, a water bottle, a lunch bag, a notebook with pens, and a bag with a toothbrush, toothpaste and shampoo. Bags intended for infants might contain baby clothes, diapers, wipes and formula.
Pinnacle Quilters Guild also provides quilts for every backpack and the Women’s Club tries to match the theme of the quilt to the child’s interest.
“The kids are very grateful,” said Women’s Club member Denise Cauthen-Wright. “They can’t believe they get to keep these things. It is out of the realm of their normal thinking. When they are taken from their families for abuse or neglect, they often don’t leave with anything.”
The project began when Cauthen-Wright took part in the 2010 Leadership Class.
“We had two projects we took on and one became the Comfort and Care backpacks,” said Cauthen-Wright. “They were designed to help children pulled out of a crisis situation and most of them would not have anything at all. The backpack was created to give them a day or two of essentials to get them through.”
After the first year, the project was passed from the Leadership Class to the Women’s Club of Hollister, which has been continuing to produce the backpacks. This year, they made up 45 backpacks apiece for five separate organizations that assist women and children seeking to escape troubled homes: Emmaus House, Chamberlain’s, Child Protective Services, Sun Street Centers and the Kinship Center.
“Chamberlain’s, for example, has kids of various backgrounds and ages and sizes,” Cauthen-Wright said. “You don’t know what the child is going to need so you sometimes have to make up the backpack on the spot.”
The backpacks are key to getting acclimated to their new living situation.
“It is very important that they know somebody cares about them,” Cauthen-Wright said. “They need to know these things are theirs, they get to keep them, and that nobody is going to take them away. It is very important to their self-esteem and to start building trust. It is a way to show them they are loved. It is why we call them ‘Comfort and Care.’ We have had kids tell us years later ‘I still have my quilt. It still comforts me.’”
Gathering the contents of the bags is an ongoing process for the club.
“The Women’s Club is good about doing various fundraisers,” Cauthen-Wright said. “In the past, we have had things like our Flamingo Flocking event in April and our fashion show. Funds that come from those fundraisers get used for the backpacks and other things the Women’s Club is supporting locally.”
With COVID-19 putting a damper on fundraising activities, the Women’s Club is relying on donations from the community and contributions from their own members, and has published the “Flocking Good Recipes” cookbook which they will be selling in local shops and on their website.
“Our members will tell us, ‘I just bought a dozen towels,’” Cauthen-Wright said. “Or they will say ‘I got a great sale on notebooks. We ask them to pick up toiletries when they stay at hotels. And of course, we donate money as well.”
The backpacks have become an important part of helping those in need with their first difficult days in a safe shelter.
“A lot of the women who come here do not have a whole lot of time to prepare,” said Patrice Kuerschner, Emmaus House executive director. “Sometimes they are fleeing at a moment’s notice. Their kids might not have time to take anything, and if they do, it is more like a comfortable toy or personal object. They are not thinking about the more practical things they will need, like things they might need for their schoolwork or hygiene items. So getting a care backpack is vitally important to them.”
While some of the items in the bag might be used for a long time, the immediate goal is to help orient the child right after their world has been torn apart.
“All we are trying to do is help their first days in a strange situation,” Cauthen-Wright said. “These kids can be upset about being away from their families, even though it was not a good situation. All we are trying to do is give them something to help in a very stressful situation.”
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