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Annie found her calling at the age of 11 when she founded the volunteer-run Care Bags Foundation, which provides bags filled with personal essentials to kids in crisis situations. Today she inspires youth not only as a second-grade teacher, but also as President & Director of the foundation, which has grown into a thriving non-profit that gives out 100+ bags every month from its Iowa headquarters. Find out more about this enterprising “bag lady” below:
You were inspired to start Care Bags after learning that many kids in crisis situations have to leave home with very few belongings. Was there a specific situation or person that left an impact on you? Tell us more about how it all got started.
Annie: The idea for Care Bags came about when my mother, who is a Child Abuse Prevention Educator for our county, came home and told me about a meeting she’d attended addressing ways to provide foster care and crises care children with the essentials they need when taken out of a home. They had thrown out an idea about filling paper bags with soap, shampoo, toothbrushes, toothpaste, etc. to give to the kids something of their own during their transitional time.
Mom explained the foster care and crises care situation and, after taking some time and thinking, I decided that we could do more. I couldn’t imagine having to leave all of my stuff behind to go and live in a strange house without anything to call my own. I was laying in bed that night and was yelling ideas out to my mom. It was through that brainstorming and support and love from my own family that Care Bags was born!
Annie: Care Bags has grown bigger and better than I ever dreamed possible! A project that started out as a small way to help a few kids in our community has grown into a recognized non-profit organization that not only helps foster care and crises care children in Iowa, but serves displaced, abused, and disadvantaged children worldwide. To date we have sent out over 20,000 bags to deserving children around the globe!
Even though a lot has changed over the past 12 years, the idea and our mission remains the same: to provide Care Bags filled with new, essential, safe, fun, and age-appropriate items for children/youth (ages baby-18 years) who are in need.
Your non-profit delivers bags to kids around the world. What’s in the bags, and where are some of the farthest places the bags have gone?
Annie: Here is a sample list of items that are often included in the bags. Because we run off of donations, the “extra” items sometimes vary from month to month, but the essential items are always included.
Baby-2 year care bags: Small Toothbrush; Children’s Toothpaste; Baby Shampoo; Soap; Bib; Kleenex; Books; Diapers; Baby Wipes; Small Stuffed Animal; Brush/Comb; Plastic Bottle/Cup; Socks; Receiving Blanket; Night Light; Pacifier; Toy (Rattle, Teething Ring, Baby Doll, etc.)
3-12 year care bags: Toothbrush; Toothpaste; Shampoo; Soap; Paper; Pen/Pencil; Book; Kleenex; Toy; Coloring/Activity Book; Crayons; Small Stuffed Animal; Stickers; Brush/Comb; Kid’s Meal/Ice Cream Gift Certificates; Cards/Games; Flashlight; Dental Floss; Cup
13-18 year care bags: Toothbrush; Toothpaste; Dental Floss; Shampoo/Conditioner; Soap; Lotion; Journal/Book; Pad of Paper; Pen/Pencil; Deck of Cards/Crossword Puzzles; Feminine Pads (girls); Brush/Comb; Kleenex; Deodorant; Perfume/Cologne; Gift Certificates for Pizza/Ice Cream/Bowling/Videos/etc.; Plastic Cup; Shower Cap
We have been so fortunate to team up with some amazing people who have hand-delivered Care Bags to kids in other countries, allowing even more kids to be helped. Care Bags have reached the hands of kids in Iraq, Guatemala, South Africa, the Amazon, and many other deserving kids around the world.
Care Bags 4 Kids is run entirely by volunteers. Do you have any tips on managing and motivating volunteers in order to get things done?
Annie: Throughout my journey with Care Bags, I have been extremely humbled and blessed by the support of my community and countless volunteers across the nation and world. I knew that I couldn’t help everyone, but I could make a difference one Care bag, one child at a time. I could never do this project without the help of our volunteers. I believe that when you find something you are passionate about that volunteering becomes fun. My passion is helping kids, and Care Bags is my way of letting kids know that I care. Care Bags has been a big part of my life and is something I love doing! Our volunteers believe in our mission, and when we work together, anything can happen! It is because of all of our support that Care Bags is what it has become today.
Do you often hear from the kids who receive the bags? Any interesting or inspiring stories?
Annie: One of our first experiences sending Care Bags abroad was eye-opening. The bags went to an orphanage in South Africa. Because I never get to meet the kids who receive my bags, I often will get back pictures or letters from the distributors telling me what it was like to hand out the bags. We got back a picture of all of these beautiful kids smiling and holding Care Bags. On the back of the picture it said: “These are the kids who got your Care Bags.” The next picture was of a group of kids and they were not smiling. The back of this picture said: “These are the kids who did not receive your bags.” I realized at that moment that volunteering is so hard because you realize that you cannot reach everyone! But from the smiles on the kids’ faces, I knew that what we were doing was brightening the lives of some.
Another story that I love to tell was about a little foster boy who received a Care Bag. His foster parents wrote and said that he carried it everywhere—he even slept with it. It was so nice for him to feel like he had something of his very own.
What are some of the unexpected challenges and rewards of running a non-profit?
Annie: I have been so lucky to have such supportive parents who have been with me every step of the way. My mother over the years has acted as chauffeur, secretary, bag filler, idea creator, and so much more! We have continually had donations coming in, which we feel so blessed since Care Bags runs solely on donations. We were able to find a Care Bags headquarters where Care Bags are filled and donations are stored. (Before that, we were filling bags in our living room and everything was kept in my parents’ bedroom!) Our mayor helped us to find a place where we could call our home and from then on, we have had volunteers visiting our headquarters and filling bags non-stop. Our biggest challenge is knowing that we cannot reach every child in need…but realizing that we can make a difference one Care Bag, one child at a time.
In what ways can our readers help you out and what are you most in need of?
Annie: We are always in need of donations for babies (pacifiers, diapers, bottles, toys, books, clothing, etc.) and books for teenagers. Those seem to be the two age groups that we are often lacking in supplies.
What would be your advice to girls who want to make a difference?
Annie: My advice is to DREAM BIG! Get out there and find what you are passionate about, take action, team up, and find ways to help—then volunteering will be fun and become something you love to do! Or do what I did and find a need in your community, dream up an idea, find some friends or grown ups to help you along the way. You will be surprised by what will happen when people come together for a good cause. No matter how big or little the act of kindness, it will make a difference. Not only that, but you feel great when you know you are helping!