I was coming out of an Ace Hardware the other day – feeling super handy, I might add – and on the way to my car, I saw a woman standing by a table raising money. It was a legit 100-gazillion degrees in Phoenix and I was entirely prepared to do the polite smile good-for-you-but-I’m-not-stopping head nod when I saw the sign on her table read “Help Arizona’s Foster Kids.” Ay. I mean I have a teen foster kid, I work for a non-profit that aims to reform the entire foster sh-bang so clearly, I had to stop.
The lady was lovely. I mean, standing outside, sweltering away in the Phoenix heat, raising money for abused kids lovely. I said hi, we chatted, I asked about the organization. Her group’s goal was to raise money for kids who live in foster and group homes. All the money raised would go to backpacks and school supplies.
I smiled because I wasn’t sure what else to do. I know a little about the backpacks.
Last week, Johnny’s case manager dropped off his belongings to our home. Over ten years of stuff collected from his various placements – over 40 of them – in one delivery. Johnny is 17. He’s been in state care since he was 3 or 4 years old. Now, he lives with me.
The case manager’s car was packed. PACKED, I tell you. Back seats down, garbage bags full, Rubbermaid tubs forced up against the back windows packed. I had less stuff moving home from college.
Johnny, the case manager and I made trip after trip, unloading it all into my home. It looked like a bomb o’crap went off in my living room.
I was a little incredulous. Gesturing around, I asked, “How is there so much stuff?”
“When a kid is moved, the group homes just shove everything left behind into a trash bag and give it to the case manager.” She paused. In a lower voice, she said, “Johnny has moved a lot of times.”
She wasn’t kidding either. Literally, the group homes shoved everything into these bags. We started unpacking bags with half-eaten containers of sunflower seeds in them, Gatorades, used popsicle sticks and broken pens. Dirty socks, clothespins, and dryer sheets. I am pretty damn sure the trash cans in Johnny’s group home bedrooms were dumped right into these bags.
The case manager left and Johnny and I made a plan. Three piles: Keep, Donate, Toss. We got to work, sifting through the bags inside of bags inside of crates inside of bins, all full of stuff.
The “keep” pile was surprisingly small: old family photos, books, his Bible, some flags. The old food, crumpled papers, broken toys and the like got trashed. I started in on the clothes, now sizes too small, folding them into the donate bins.
We were hours into it and making good progress. I was zoned out and focused on not touching all the chewed-up pieces of gum that a group home felt the need to keep, when Johnny asked:
“What should we do with all the backpacks?”
I looked up from the pile of boy’s clothes I was sitting in, across the room to where Johnny was sitting. Next to him was a tower of backpacks, piled one on top of each other, a rainbow of zippered canvas. Pristine and unused, all of them. Next to the backpacks were school supplies – a ton of them. I mean, a TON of them. Brand new boxes of colored pencils, a pile of unused spiral notebooks two feet high, 10-15 binders, markers, rounded kid scissors, pencil lead, erasers. Johnny’s section of my living room had been converted to an aisle at Office Max.
It took me a second to understand. Did he steal this stuff? Was one of his group homes dealing in black market office supplies?
“Whenever you got a new placement, you got a new backpack loaded with school supplies.”
“Yeah,” he said. “We got them all the time. I never used them. Homework just got stolen at the group homes and I was so behind, it didn’t matter anyway.”
I looked at Johnny, then around at all his stuff. I saw his younger self everywhere – a kid I never met, but who grew into the teenager sitting in my living room. In the stretched out and faded gray sweatshirt he said he used to wear to sleep, I saw a scared young child. In the rough and ragged graffiti letters scratched into the wallet, I saw an angry middle schooler. And in the untouched spiral school notebooks, I saw a beaten-down teenager with no reason to hope that life would get better so why try.
At every stage of this kid’s life, instead of real support, instead of meaningful help, instead of a family, he got a backpack and a pack of colored pencils. I don’t know if my heart hurt for young Johnny or because my anger was rising like a fire from the pit of my stomach. Probably both.
Johnny was losing himself in the stuff so I tried to lighten the mood. “Well, do you need a new backpack? I have several to choose from”
“I don’t really want any of these here.”
I nodded. “Me neither, kiddo.”
We packed up the keepsakes, took out the many bags of trash, and loaded up my SUV with the donations. I asked Johnny if we should find a group home for the backpacks. He snorted, “They don’t need another backpack, Mom.” Got it. We dropped everything – all the evidence of how this child has been failed over and over again – at a Goodwill and we called it a day.
So I smiled at the woman raising money at the Ace Hardware. I listened as she told me how little people know about the child protective system in our country and how awful and unsafe it is for these kids. I told her I knew a little about it and that I really appreciated her standing in the summer heat, raising awareness for these kids. I meant it.
But I couldn’t bring myself to donate one dime for a backpack.