He looked though the backpack, which included many kid-friendly items, and behold: we saw the first smile of the day when he picked up the LEGO toy. As he was leaving with DCF, he said, “Thank you so much for the backpack. Now I can go to school tomorrow!”. Despite the chaos and his separation from his mother, the first thing on his mind was getting back to the fundamentals of childhood, starting with his own education. That was the day that we began to think: why can’t we do this for every child placed from the emergency department into custody?
In December of 2008, a mother arrived in the pediatric emergency department at Boston Medical Center, and asked us to place her child in foster care while she worked to get her life back on track. She was concerned for her child, and heartbroken, because she knew she would have to say goodbye. Her son was a smart and engaging 8-year-old boy, who the Department of Children and Families soon placed with a foster family. Upon discharge to his foster home, we realized that he had no belongings on his person, and the situation suddenly seemed twice as tragic. It was around the holiday, so we had accumulated a few donated items in the hospital. We put together a backpack with supplies to last the child for the upcoming twenty-four hours.
These children are being rescued from situations that have been unsafe and unpredictable. It is very important to provide emotional and physical support to these children during the initial hours of an emergency response. The Pieces of Home Backpack Project was formed to provide every child discharged to the care of DCF with a stuffed backpack. The backpack includes new pajamas, underwear, small toys, a snuggly animal, a fleece blanket and books. This provides these displaced children with a sense of ownership and brings a small amount of normalcy to an unfamiliar world. Handing a child a backpack sends an important message to them: we think that you are brave, valuable and we want you to have what you need to go on your next adventure. We strive to show the foster families that we understand the work of caring for a child, which starts with us, but continues long afterwards as the children find stability and safety in their new home.
Courtney Ouelette, CCLS and Kathleen Walz, RN
Co-founders of Pieces of Home
Courtney and Kathleen came up with the idea of the Pieces of Home Backpack Project while working at Boston Medical Center's Pediatric Emergency Department in 2007. We met a sweet boy who needed to be placed into a foster home urgently when his mom brought him to our ED because she had relapsed on heroin. He spent the better part of the day with us as the Department of Children and Family searched for family members to care for him. They were unsuccessful with their search for family so he was discharged into a foster home. We gathered a backpack and supplies to "tide him over" for a few days and he was so excited. Our staff was grateful to have something to share with him and at follow up, his foster family thanked us for helping him arrive to their home with something of his own.
The joy and positive feelings which were created by organizing just one backpack for this one child were overwhelming. This simple idea gathered momentum and we began to create backpacks for all displaced children during their difficult transition. Initial donations were received from anonymous donors, the BMC staff, and the Johnson School in Natick. These thoughtful donations allowed us to create our first 8 backpacks. As word spread, items and bags began to flow toward this grassroots cause. We busied ourselves with the program, placing backpacks into the hands of vulnerable children. As our supplies began to outweigh our needs at BMC, we decided to share with other hospitals who were caring for children in the same way, and we continue to add locations today. We have met some amazing colleagues who host the program, as well as hundreds of friends who donate their time, money, and positive energy. We believe in this project wholeheartedly.