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Sean Kirst: For foster kids who lost it all, love comes in a duffel bag

The teenager had to pack his life into a garbage bag.

He was riding home on the school bus one afternoon this autumn, lost in conversation with classmates from his high school in suburban Buffalo, when he saw the police cars in front of his house.

At 15, he is a high school sophomore, a thoughtful kid of slender build. He remembers how he climbed off the bus, where his brother, younger by a year, was already there, waiting.

"They're taking us away," the brother said.

A police officer walked over and explained the boys were being moved into foster care. He told the teen he could ask whatever he wanted to ask, but the officer also said he needed to pack his things.

The 15-year-old grabbed a garbage bag in the kitchen and went upstairs to his room. He didn't have much time. He threw in some clothes, his good phone and an old one he uses to play games. He tossed in a charger, his poker chips, some playing cards.

"I took everything I needed," the teenager said.

That moment helps explain why Sue and Paul Snyder Jr. coordinate a new program they call "Care Cases for WNY." The idea is simple. They say children trying to deal with the harsh disruption of their everyday lives, with the sudden jolt of going into foster care, should at least be freed from one traumatic ritual.

They shouldn't need to keep everything they own in a garbage bag.

"I remember thinking, 'This is terrible, but it can't be happening here,' " Paul Snyder Jr. said.

The Snyders were shaken when they learned that reality is commonplace. Their initiative, inspired by similar programs in California and the Washington, D.C., area, triggered a local explosion of donations and volunteer help. In this year alone, more than 800 foster children in Erie County have received new "care cases."

The 15-year-old is now in emergency foster care at Baker Victory Services in Lackawanna. Once he arrived at Baker, staff members surprised him with a gift.

They gave him a "care case," a duffel bag with wheels and a handle, so new it still carried the scent of the store. It contained a journal, a pen, pajamas, some new clothes, a bag of toothpaste and other toiletries, even a fleece blanket.

"It's big," the teen said. "It can hold all my stuff."

The teen was interviewed last week at Baker Victory, on the provision that his identity remained anonymous. His mother became ill and died within the last few years. He did not elaborate on the causes that sent him into foster care, except to say that his family had experienced some struggles.

"They caught us at a bad time," the 15-year-old said.

That journey always carries some level of pain or trauma, and human service workers say there is no question: The opioid epidemic has brought the needs of many foster children to an extreme level of intensity.

Paul Snyder Jr., chief executive officer of Snyder Corp., said the reality came home with full force last January, while he and his wife were watching the "Today" show.

They saw a segment on Rob Scheer, a one-time foster child who founded an initiative called "Comfort Cases" in Gaithersburg, Md. Scheer, an adoptive father, was leading an effort to provide duffel bags for foster children. He remembered the indignity of carrying his things in a garbage bag, the way the bag itself seemed to say something about who he was.

From Sandra Tan of The Buffalo News: Opioid crisis causes a 'tsunami' of neglect

A tag that says everything on a new duffel bag for foster children, at Baker-Victory Services. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The Snyders began thinking about starting a similar effort, in Buffalo. They called Scheer's staff. They also made contact with "Together We Rise," a California organization that provides extensive support to foster children.

Paul Jr. had a simple question. He wondered, if he and Susan made a donation, if there might be a way to provide new duffel bags for children removed from their homes in Erie County.

Officials with both groups had the same response. They were glad the Snyders was interested. But they had plenty of obligations in their own communities.

"They said to me, 'If you want to do it, why don't you do it yourself?' " Paul said.

At first, it was not what Paul wanted to hear. Like everyone else, he's busy. He preferred the idea of writing a check and having someone with expertise handle the actual preparation.

Still, Paul serves as a deacon at St. Mary's Church in Swormville. He thought hard about why he took that position in the first place, the whole idea of seeing need in the larger community. He and Sue spent a lot of time discussing the magnitude of the problem.

"They're a forgotten group, a forgotten population," Sue said of foster children. "We wanted to give them something of value, something they can call their own, proof that their lives matter to someone."

The guy who helped them make it happen, Paul said, was Al Dirschberger, commissioner of social services for Erie County. Dirschberger told the Snyders that roughly 4,420 children in greater Buffalo are covered by the umbrella of the county's foster care services, with about 1,600 actually living outside their homes.

The bottom line, he told the Snyders, was that the foster children of Erie County were still carrying their things from place to place in whatever containers they could find.

Many times, they used garbage bags.

"Al was essential," Paul said of Dirschberger's support. "These are fragile children, and we wanted to make sure we were doing this correctly. He and his wife Ann-Marie were amazing."

Dirschberger said the greatest damage caused by the opioid epidemic lies in what he called "the long-term destruction wreaked on families," the searing neglect fueled by the all-consuming nature of heroin addiction.

Those children, the Snyders said, needed comfort. The couple began calling friends they knew could help. Donations poured in. Last spring, they held a "packing day" in which 40 volunteers stuffed duffel bags for boys and girls, each bag filled with items intended to be be age appropriate.

"We went from nothing in January to almost 1,000 by Thanksgiving," Paul said of the children who've received those bags.

The goal now is spreading the notion throughout the region. The Snyders have created a "Care Cases of WNY" Facebook page. They've already met with officials from Niagara County, and they are looking for volunteers to carry the effort to other Western New York counties.

At Baker Victory, where the staff opened up 19 new beds for emergency foster care in the last 20 months, administrators say it is hard to overstate the emotional benefit of the bags. Terese Scofidio, chief executive officer, said the total number of foster children overseen by programs at Baker has increased dramatically over five years.

"A lot of these kids come to us with very little, whatever they had with them at the time," said Halli Lavner, director of residential and foster care.

The bags are personalized with a tag that reads "You matter." Each one contains such items as warm pajamas, fleece blankets and stuffed animals for the little children.

"It's a tangible symbol that someone cares," Lavner said.

Residential manager Mariah Robinson shows a fleece blanket from a new duffel bag to a child at Baker Victory Services in Lackawanna. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The staff allowed several children to be interviewed. After the 15-year-old was done sharing his story, residential manager Mariah Robinson walked in with an 11-year-old girl, a child wearing a shirt that read "Better Days."

She likes the shirt, she said quietly, because it represents what she believes God will someday give her family.

The child carried a toy from the new duffel bag, a stuffed dog she calls "Boxer." She said she sleeps with Boxer every night, a gift that offers one small cure for loneliness.

"It means a lot to me," said the girl, who left school one day in the company of a social worker. She learned she wouldn't be going to her aunt's house, as expected. Instead, the child went to Baker Victory. Whatever possessions she had were in a little backpack that she'd brought to school that morning.

The 11-year-old has not seen her mother in a while. She misses her grandmother and her aunt. She said she has a court date coming up that might allow her to return to her extended family, but she has learned, at 11, not to be optimistic.

"I try not to get my hopes up," she said.

While she arrived at Baker with only a few belongings, the "care case" was waiting for her by her bed. She was glad for the pajamas, the blanket, the new stuffed animal. She was especially grateful for a coloring book and crayons, a distraction that helps keep her mind off her worries.

Whatever she loves, whatever she cares about, she keeps inside that bag.

For now, waiting for better days, it's one small piece of home.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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