LARGO — Three years ago, Ridgecrest Elementary School teacher Stephanie Willis took a new student under her wing. The girl, a foster child, was quiet, sullen and refused to complete any of her work.
She had, Willis said, "a big chip on her shoulder."
Two months later, with Willis' support, the 11-year-old started to participate in class, turn in her homework, improve her grades and — most important — smile.
That is, until the day she came into class, climbed onto Willis' lap and cried. The girl said she was moving to yet another foster home. To make things worse, she didn't have anything in which to carry her few possessions.
"She told me, 'They're going to put all my stuff in a trash bag and throw me out like yesterday's trash,' " Willis recalled. Willis, a 14-year veteran at Ridgecrest, appealed to other faculty members and found a suitcase for the girl.
"You would've thought that I'd given her gold," Willis recalled.
Now, Willis and her fifth-grade class are making sure other foster children have more than a trash bag to carry between foster homes.
Willis' classroom was transformed into a bustling assembly line Tuesday morning as she and 18 students stuffed 120 black duffel bags with shampoo, body wash, toothpaste and other supplies to be donated to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Child Protection Investigation Division and then delivered to children going from one foster home to another.
The project will give foster kids a sturdy bag for their possessions and provide useful necessities.
"Instead of a suitcase, now we're using duffel bags, but it's the same idea," Willis said. "These duffel bags will give the children a two-day head start for the time before their new foster parents can go out and buy them the things they need."
Wanda Jones-McCree, a CPI supervisor, said the duffel bags will be snapped up fast: About 70 children are removed from foster homes in Pinellas County each month, she said, and those children are usually in desperate need of even the most basic toiletries and supplies.
No other public school in Pinellas County has taken on a project like this one, Jones-McCree said.
Sandra Killian, the director of a foster care advocacy group called the Suncoast Voices for Children, helped oversee the project. She explained that children removed from their foster homes are typically given very little notice and are rarely allowed to bring more than a few items along with them.
In one instance, Killian said, CPI officers arrived at a foster home to pick up two children. Before the foster mother let the children go, she took off all their clothes. "You can have the kids, but you can't have the clothes — I paid for the clothes," Killian recalled the woman saying.
Jones-McCree explained that children in foster care tend to move from home to home for a variety of reasons: Sometimes, kids are placed in crowded foster homes as a quick fix, but are moved when a more permanent spot opens up. Other times, clashes in personality cause a child to be assigned to new foster parents.
Funding came from two sources: Willis got a $1,000 grant from the State Farm Companies Foundation. Then, Ridgecrest Elementary administrators organized a "penny war" and collected $800.
Willis said she's using the project to teach her fifth-graders about the foster care system. Her students just finished reading Pictures of Hollis Woods, a children's novel about a girl who moves from home to home within the system. On Tuesday afternoon, the class watched the movie adaptation of the book, which stars Sissy Spacek and Alfre Woodard.
Stephen Johnston, 12, spent his morning zipping up black duffel bags, attaching tags to the straps and placing them in a pile. He said he was happy to have an opportunity to help kids who are in need.
"They get taken away from their parents, and they usually can't take anything with them — not even their stuffed animals," said Stephen, who lives in Largo. "Today was fun, because when we were done, I was thinking about all the kids that we're helping out."
Martine Powers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4224.