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Students Pack It Up for Foster Children

By Used with permission from the Boston Globe Online. By Nancy V. Burns

GLOBE NORTHWEST - A student-driven effort at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell that provides backpacks stuffed with personal items for children entering foster care has reached farther into the community this year and doubled its success.

Last spring, in the inaugural year of the Welcome Pack project, psychology students collected 50 backpacks stuffed with items such as underwear, pajamas, socks, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and age-appropriate books and toys. On Monday, they plan to give 100 backpacks to officials from the Department of Social Services at the annual banquet of the school's psychology department.

Doreen Arcus, assistant professor of psychology at UMass-Lowell and co-adviser of the school's Psychology Club, has seen participation in the program snowball.

"Last year it was incredibly successful," Arcus said. "Everyone felt really positive about having been able to do something that was very concrete. This year we're doing very much the same things, but reaching out a little more into the community for involvement. The project quickly attracted a lot of attention, and a lot of people are interested in helping. It's inspirational; kind of a neat thing."

The program has its roots in the work of Maria Shay, a psychology student at the university who brainstormed with fellow members of the Psychology Club about how to ease the way for children entering foster homes. As a social worker for 22 years, Shay had witnessed the pain and disruption experienced by children as they were taken from their homes in the midst of a domestic crisis and sent to live with strangers.

Charlotte Mandell, a professor of psychology and the other adviser to the Psychology Club, said Shay's contacts with DSS helped to get the program started.

"She knew how to pitch the idea to the other students," said Mandell. "When she described the plight of these children who have nothing and explained how great the needs are of DSS, she just got everybody excited."

The Welcome Pack project was born as an effort to offer children entering foster care a touchstone in a traumatic situation.

Mandell said the most direct impact is on the children themselves.

"Having something that is YOURS, when you can walk through the door with a backpack and some personal items, gives a vulnerable child something to hold onto," said Mandell.

All 50 backpacks provided by the program last spring had gone to foster children by the end of the summer.

The initial boost for this year's effort was a donation from Stoneham Bank. Although the bank does not have facilities in Lowell, it was a major cash contributor and also held drives to collect backpacks and personal items.

BankNorth also provided a sizeable cash donation, as did the Old Mother Hubbard pet food manufacturer. Some people simply heard about the drive and sent checks. Others walked into Mandell's office, saying they had heard about the drive and filled a backpack to drop off.

"We raised a total of $3,000," said Mandell. The funds allowed the club to purchase quality backpacks from Marshalls at a generous discount, and to buy other needed items.

Two locations of the Roudenbush Preschool in Westford have been involved in the program since the beginning. This spring the preschools invited parents to gather personal items. The response was enough to fill 10 backpacks for 2-to-5-year-olds.

And in Nashua, Danielle Dirton, daughter of UMass-Lowell student Valerie Dirton, spearheaded a drive for backpack items with her classmates at Bishop Guertin High School.

"It's a grass-roots kind of thing with children in the community pulling together materials for other children in the same community, whose lives are not as fortunate as theirs." said Arcus, "There are so many lessons there, helping them to grow up with an appreciation of what they and their peers already have."

Arcus and Mandell think that the Psychology Club's efforts are the first in which a local university is teaming up with DSS to provide backpacks.