February 25, 2010


Backpacks to help foster kids


Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
From left, Lori Allen, Gloria Murray, Christella Yonta and Laurie Barton, members of Leadership Cortland, unpack a backpack donated for the Backpacks for Foster Kids program they have developed.

Living and Leisure Editor

A group wanting to make life easier for foster kids is kicking off an initiative to collect backpacks and comfort items to make their transition easier to their new homes.
“When a child is (placed) there is not a lot of time to gather their things,” said Christella Yonta, a member of Leadership Cortland’s Fostering the Future committee, which is initiating the program.
Typically, kids leaving their biological home for foster care have their possessions hastily packed in a black garbage bag, said Lori Allen of Virgil, committee member. These bags are also used for overnight visits to homes, camps and on school trips, committee members said.
“I think the backpacks are about self-esteem, so kids have something they can call their own, that’s theirs — their personal belongings,” said Yonta.
The group decided to solicit the public for backbacks and items to go inside: teddy bears, blankets and toiletry items.
“It’s something simple and doable,” said Yonta.
“Backpacks for Foster Kids” is the name of the initiative which kicks off Friday and will run through March 26. Yonta of Cortland, Allen, Gloria Murray of McGraw, Laurie Barton of Marathon and Anjali Consalvi of Cortland make up the committee that is overseeing the project.
The group is looking for individuals, groups or businesses to provide a new, standard backpack and stuff it with items that will help a child in their new home. Suggested items to put in the backpack could be: coloring books, toiletries, small stuffed animals, towels/washclothes/ hair accessories, bushes/combs, school supplies, tooth brushes/toothpaste, books/journals, small pillows, toys/games, T-shirts.
“We knew we wanted to do something for foster kids, said Allen. “We wanted to do a mentoring program for foster kids but it was not realistic for the timeframe,” said Yonta. Consalvi researched ideas on the Internet and saw this program in effect elsewhere. Members asked if they could do it here and got the OK.
“We are going to be sending out letters to local businesses, schools, churches, senior organizations, notifying them of our appeal,” said Barton. “The J.M. Murray Center is participating with us, to pick up and house backpacks until Department of Social Services needs them.”
Yonta, the project coordinator for Seven Valleys Health Coalition, said the number of foster kids in Cortland County is high. In 2007, Cortland County had a rate of 7.4 per 1,000 children age infant to 21 in foster care. Those numbers compare to 3.1 in upstate New York and 4.9 in New York State, according to local DSS figures. As of January, there were 135 children in foster care in Cortland County, according to county DSS reports sought out by Yonta. The average stay for a child in foster care is 13.7 months.
“I think it’s fantastic,” said Tiffanie Parker, director of Children’s Services at DSS, of the program. “It’s very hard to watch the kids come in. They are leaving their homes and they don’t have many belongings.”
Years ago DSS staff gathered up dufflebags for foster kids, she said. She praised the fact that this initiative will be ongoing.
“I was a Cortland Leadership graduate myself. I think what this group is doing is so much better than what we did. Kids come into care. They may not have backpacks. It’s a little token that softens the blow of coming into foster care.”
People can contact Roberta Gabriel or Molly Riley at the Murray Center at 607-756-4041 or Consalvi at or Murray at 607-753-2418 to donate filled backbacks.
Leadership Cortland prepares Cortland County residents for leadership positions in the community. Sponsored by the county Chamber of Commerce and Tompkins Cortland Community College, the group spends part of a year meeting monthly for training, learning leadership development and the ins and the outs of the community. Part of the program is to create a project that will benefit the community.
“It’s supposed to be a project that can continue on,” said Barton. “Not just one year and you’re done.”
Allen, a mental health aide at the Cortland County Mental Health Department, said the foster home has basic needs like the home and food. But the foster kids arrive on the spot.
“One foster care mom told me the kids come in the evening,” said Murray, an executive assistant at SUNY Cortland. “They have a voucher for essentials, but they just can’t leave and go to a store.”
The group is looking for backpacks for girls and boys 3 to 7, 8 to 12 and 13 to 18. Already, eight bags have been collected and they would like to see 50 backpacks donated in the first year. After the group graduates from Leadership Cortland, a committee, with possibly several of the members on it, will oversee the program.
“The Murray Center can’t solicit at all,” said Allen. “That’s why a committee needs to do the program.” People who attend Murray Center programs will collect and deliver the backpacks, Allen said.
Group members were excited about their project.
“In our group, everyone has differing expertise,” said Yonta. “We came up with ideas and it has snowballed,” said Allen.
They have met once a month since November, besides their day long once a month commitment with Leadership Cortland, to get the program off the ground.
“I have never worked in a group like this and enjoyed it so much,” said Murray. “The fact that we are doing something that will make a difference in someone’s life .... When you are doing something for someone else, it brings out the good in you.”


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