Maryland man launched effort to show every separated border that child someone cares

Monday , July 02, 2018 - 8:16 AM

Hannah Natanson

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

The Facebook messages, emails and calls began flooding Kim Stokes’s phone soon after images and audio of immigrant children forcibly separated from their parents did.

Strangers across the country and beyond were reaching out to ask how they could help Comfort Cases - a small charity based in Rockville, Maryland, that delivers care packages to foster children - send backpacks stuffed with basic necessities to the thousands of children parted from their mothers and fathers. Stokes, the charity’s director of operations, was stunned by one of the largest “outpourings of support” she had ever seen.

One woman in Arizona emailed asking if she could put together toiletry kits for the children. Another woman in Canada wrote to say she wanted to fly to the United States to volunteer. Still another woman, a teacher based in California, emailed a list of bilingual books she thought the immigrant children could read.

Flipping between the messages and news reports, Stokes knew that Comfort Cases had to act. She texted the charity’s executive director, Tony Bonetti, and its founder, Rob Scheer, and learned that they had independently arrived at the same conclusion. Thus began a mobilization effort that over the past two weeks has led to an emergency fundraiser, a massive outreach campaign to government officials and a new mission for the charity.

Its initial goal was to send a namesake “comfort case” - a backpack filled with pajamas, a blanket, toiletries and a coloring book or journal - to each of the more than 2,000 children separated from their parents by a Trump administration immigration policy.

Scheer, who was inspired to found Comfort Cases because of the abuse and neglect he suffered as a foster child, said he wanted to help because he knows how the immigrant children feel.

“I identify with them all the time - I lived it [and] I know: These are kids who in their eyes are feeling discarded, feeling unwanted,” Scheer said. “These kids need to know that we believe in them.”

Since the charity kick-started its campaign, the family separation policy has been reversed and the Trump administration has reunited about 500 children with their parents. Still, Comfort Cases faces a daunting task.

The charity has raised $58,500 of its $150,000 target, a number it calculated by multiplying its estimate of the number of children separated from their parents by the average cost of one of its care packages, $65. As of Sunday, the charity had sent just 250 comfort cases - about 10 percent of its goal - to immigrant children in facilities in Texas, Virginia and Maryland. It is proving more difficult than anticipated to track down the intended recipients, who are scattered throughout the United States and often barricaded behind bureaucratic red tape.

Nonetheless, the group’s leadership is undeterred.

“We want to reach every single one,” Bonetti said. “I don’t know if financially we’ll achieve that - but even if funds are exhausted, we would still respond to requests.”

Scheer co-founded the charity with his husband, Reece, in 2013. It has grown rapidly in the past half-decade, in part aided by a video documenting Scheer’s life story that went viral in February 2017, garnering more than 100 million views. In its first year, the charity sent comfort cases to 3,000 foster children; last year, it sent out 11,000; and this year it is on track to produce 14,000 - although that estimate excludes the packages destined for immigrant children.

Scheer came up with the idea for the charity based on his experiences in foster care, where he said he was forced to tote his belongings in a trash bag. When he and Reece adopted four children from the foster-care system 40 years later, Scheer was shocked to see the children arrive on his doorstep clutching garbage bags filled with their possessions.

He launched Comfort Cases, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit group, with the goal of eradicating trash bags from the American foster-care system and providing dignity and comfort to children who often feel alone and unwanted. Each comfort case backpack is packed with a “Comfort XL” duffel bag, carefully folded and tied with a ribbon, big enough to hold a child’s possessions. As of September 2016, an estimated 437,465 children were in foster care in the United States.

The charity has just three full-time staff members and operates almost entirely through volunteers, who travel to Rockville as individuals or in groups for hours-long stints during the workweek. Standing in a long assembly line in the Comfort Cases offices, volunteers pack mostly donated supplies into backpacks, choosing from an array of picture books, small shampoo bottles, pajamas and blankets. Stuffed animals are always packed last, meant to be the first thing children see when they unzip the backpacks.

“Having your own blanket and your own stuff, your own toothbrush - things that we often take for granted - makes a huge difference in bringing comfort and peace to a kid,” said Jenna Jacoby, a development specialist at Youth for Tomorrow, a residential facility for at-risk children in Bristow, Virginia, that is housing immigrant children and working with Comfort Cases. “A comfort case is also just something that’s theirs.”

Jacoby said Youth for Tomorrow has opened its doors to more than 50 immigrant children in recent weeks, a combination of those separated from their parents at the border and those who crossed the border alone and were taken into federal custody. Comfort Cases on Thursday sent the Bristow complex 50 care packages; Jacoby said staffers plan to distribute the backpacks Monday.

The charity has also sent shipments to immigrant children at agencies in El Paso and McAllen, Texas, and at a facility in Crofton, Maryland, run by Bethany Christian Services. A Bethany spokesman wrote in an emailed statement that “we are grateful for the support companies such as Comfort Cases provide these vulnerable children.”

Stokes and Bonetti are trying to reach more kids. Bonetti said Comfort Cases is working with the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement and has contacted refugee coordinators in each of the 50 states and the District. Government officials are often overtaxed and stretched thin, though, and progress has been slow. Bonetti said he has received replies from just four states so far.

Comfort Cases itself has been burdened by the sudden increase in demand for backpacks, although the workload has been lessened by the influx of new volunteers eager to help the immigrant children, Stokes said.

Taking a break from work last week and resting his elbows on the rainbow-colored table in the Comfort Cases kitchen, Bonetti said he doesn’t mind putting in extra time.

But he can’t stop asking himself why this happened. Normally, he notes, Comfort Cases provides help to children separated from abusive or neglectful parents.

“With this, they had their families to begin with,” he said. “That’s the hardest part to make sense of. It was 100 percent avoidable.”

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