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Program Hopes to Bring Back-To-School Supplies, Normalcy to Foster Children

Charlotte Carpenter
Volunteers distribute supplies for the a program that provides Texas foster children with back-to-school necessities.

Back-to-school shopping is not for the faint of heart.

To the uninitiated, it may seem like total madness.

But, really, it's family time: parents read school lists out loud while children run around in search of items. It's also a time children in foster care rarely experience, but, for the first time, a non-profit is trying to provide children in foster care with a similar experience.

Marcos Cantu grabs some paper bags. He stands in a hot and muggy warehouse.

He doesn't seem to mind the heat and neither do his volunteers.

"OK, I'll show you how to grab a bag and fill it,” he says, looking at brand new clothes that sit on long tables. “So, right here this is all boy stuff."

Cantu looks at a label that tells him the name of a child in foster care, and the size of clothes the child needs. He grabs two sets of pants and four polo shirts, then he staples the bag closed and one of the more than 400 bags prepped for Saturday's first ever back-to-school bash for children who are in foster care in Travis County. 

Among those sorting the clothes and packing them is Michelle McElrath. She's with the National Charity League North Austin Chapter, a mother-daughter service organization. McElrath and her 11-year-old Ellie are new to this type of philanthropy, but both say they've learned a lot this first summer.

Ellie says she's having some fun helping people.

She says she never knew there were so many folks in need, right here, where she lives.

"I knew there [were] some people [in need] because you drive around and see a bunch of homeless people," Ellie says. "But, now, after doing a bunch of volunteer opportunities, I've seen that there are a lot more people that need help."

She is right, last year almost 28,000 Texas children were involved with Child Protective Services, including 3,730 in the Austin area.

Credit Texas Child Protective Services

For his part, Cantu says one of the biggest challenges in Texas, is when children are removed from homes that also house drug activity.

"Just a couple of weeks ago, a case worker came in and she's like,‘Do you all have any clothing?’” Cantu recalls. “Because this little boy's clothes were all soaked in meth.”

In those cases, everything has meth residue on them and has to be destroyed, even the children's underwear.

Since some kids have absolutely nothing with them, Partnerships for Children started stocking what they call "The Rainbow Room" in 2003.

Everything is brand new: beds, stuffed animals and even the shoes.

Every CPS office in every Texas County has a Rainbow Room, and they don't accept used items for donation, not even lightly used.

The monetary donations are to fulfill the needs of children in crisis. The mission is to provide everything a child needs, even perhaps, a piece of normalcy in a place called the Rainbow Room.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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