DUNEDIN — Three children who had been yanked from bad situations entered the Pinellas County foster care system on a recent Tuesday. And all within two hours.
As child welfare caseworkers searched for foster homes, volunteers Ann Hartle and Kim Greenleaf prepared by pulling duffel bags from the shelf of the Raising Hope resource room.
Raising Hope, a small nonprofit group, focuses on emergency needs for children who are new to foster care or are being moved to new homes. Its goal is to help children walk into their new lives with their heads higher.
"I was mentoring a young boy in foster care and another child was being removed from the home," recalled Hartle, one of the group's founders. "The child's belongings were tossed into a trash bag. It broke my heart."
Hartle decided to do something and reached out to friends for help.
Enter Kim Greenleaf and Billy Huettig, a sister and brother, owners of an electrical engineering firm, an electrical contracting business and soft hearts.
"I talked to my brother and said, 'Billy, we've got to do this,' " Greenleaf said. "He agreed. We owned a cottage next door to the business in Dunedin and decided to use that property as a staging area. For two years, the three of us personally financed the children's needs and collected gently used clothing from friends, neighbors and business organizations."
Raising Hope gives children from newborn to 18 the chance to fit in with other kids. Maybe even stand out. In a good way.
They do it through stylish and clean clothes. New shoes. Personal toiletry and hygiene items. Things the child might do without, because foster parents can't run out and buy everything that the child needs the moment he or she arrives.
Raising Hope's resource room shines like an oasis connected to the offices of Eckerd Community Alternatives, the lead agency for child welfare services in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
The room is alive with color. All sizes of clothing, marked and folded on shelves like a department store. New shoes, from sneakers to sparkly flats. A place to get a uniform for a new school. PJs and T-shirts. Plus, each child gets school supplies neatly packaged for elementary, middle or high school students.
A happy moment in the midst of a heartbreaking day.
Hartle runs the room and shops for the children. She spent $1,400 last month in American Eagle. Many items are purchased at JCPenney and Target, but high-end name-brand clothes usually come from the closets of local kids and teens. And Raising Hope needs all it can get.
"None of our clothes are 'hoochie-momma' stuff," said Greenleaf, who spends much of her time in the group's Dunedin staging area, sorting donations. She also writes grant requests.
"This is Pinellas County," Greenleaf said as she struggled to hold back tears. "There shouldn't be kids that have these problems. But the kids didn't get a chance to choose who their parents are. It does take a village. It takes every one of us to step up and give them a chance. Pride and dignity are what we give them."
Raising Hope did just that for a teen whose eyes lit up as she saw a purse she wanted and could take. She chose other items, too, but kept the purse tightly against her body, as if someone might take it away.
"It's hard to fit in when you know you're different," said Hartle.
That's why she asks questions about a child if she picks out their items. What's his or her favorite color? Does she have long hair? Answers to those questions helped her choose pink and lavender shorts sets for a 6-year-old girl. Multicolored hair bands, too. And before the duffel bag left the room, Hartle gently slipped in a new doll with waist-long lavender hair.
Underwear, socks and shoes are all new. So, too, are the rows of personal hygiene items that teens might have a hard time asking for when they move in with a stranger. Shampoo, powder, diapers, female products, even lice treatment is on hand. So are some specific products for the hair of children of color. Little luxuries like body lotion and spray serve as treats when girls have outgrown dolls.
Much is needed because Raising Hope delivers services to children 24 hours a day. Last year, its resource room was visited 1,868 times.
"This is an awesome resource," said Lorita Shirley, executive director of Eckerd Community Alternatives.
Raising Hope originated with one person, but it has blossomed to four since Jeanne Davis came aboard to help with marketing. Those four — Davis, Greenleaf, Hartle and Huettig — do everything, and donations and grants keep Raising Hope going and growing. It became a 501(c)(3) organization in 2004.
This past year, Greenleaf said, the organization took in $100,000, including in-kind donations. The organization has no overhead. It pays no salaries or rent. Money goes to buy what children need.
But Raising Hope fills more than a checklist of items. At a time where children are whisked away from all they know, a visit to Raising Hope provides a sense of hope. It lets kids know someone cares about them. That's why the organization is choosy about clothing it accepts.
"We want to be sure buttons aren't broken," Greenleaf said. "No stains or holes. Zippers that zip. Shoes, socks and underwear have to be new and we need all sizes of clothing — little and big. Regular-sized toiletries, not travel-sized. We accept large quantities, but someone could spend $5 at a dollar store and we're happy."
Sewing Hope, a ministry of Immanuel Church in Largo, makes fleece blankets for Raising Hope and prays over them for the children. Civic organizations like Rotary of Dunedin North support the organization. Businesses do, too, like the recent clothes purchased and sorted by employees of BB&T North branches.
While everything Raising Hope offers is important, the duffel bag is especially so.
"Our duffel bags zip and they hold things in place," said Hartle. "That's a big deal to these boys and girls."