Unpacking the Essentials for a Transformational Volunteer Experience with Comfort Cases

In the fall of 2017, I was visiting a few friends at the University of Maryland, College Park and they asked me to join a service project they were attending. The event was for an organization called, Comfort Cases. It was their annual fall “packing party” and they partnered with the University of Maryland School of Public Health to host it. “Packing parties” are service events where volunteers fill backpacks, called comfort cases, with all the necessities for children in foster care. The backpacks contain essential items a child may need such as pajamas, a blanket, toiletries and other age appropriate items. All of the supplies are brand new and are donated by individuals and communities. Comfort Cases are packed for children as young as a few months old up to eighteen years of age. According to a statistic drawn directly from the Comfort Cases website, “On any given day, there are nearly 437,500 youth in the foster care system in the United States. Of the thousands of youth who enter the system each year, most arrive carrying little more than the clothes on their backs.  If they are afforded the opportunity to collect any personal belongings, many are then given a trash bag in which to place and carry their personal items.” As a result of this, Comfort Cases’ mission is to “inspire communities to bring dignity and hope to youth in foster care,” (“Our Mission”). 

Comfort Cases Reflection - Jason Neiswinter 2017
Peer Leader Jason Neiswinter (pictured right) filling a backpack with toiletry items at the UMD Comfort Cases Packing Party in November 2017. Image courtesy of Alpha Phi Omega at the University of Maryland, Epsilon Mu Chapter

When I arrived at the venue, I was instantly overwhelmed by the mass amount of people. The small gymnasium was lined with several rows of tables. Each row was marked for a specific age group and topped with various items such as pajamas, blankets, books, etc. Volunteers gathered in an open area next to the tables until they were moved one by one, in a single file fashion, to a packing station. My friends and I jumped in line and waited to be directed. Once a pack leader called upon us, a single volunteer would be assigned to a specific section. We were handed a backpack and a checklist of supplies to fill it with. Next, we moved down the line, collecting items and filling the bags. When our backpacks were fully packed, we gave them to a representative to review and process for storage. After our backpacks were checked in, we hopped back in line and repeated the process for the next two hours. By the end of the event, approximately one-thousand comfort cases were assembled. I will never forget looking around the room and seeing dozens of carts overflowing with backpacks. It was such a powerful visual that, to this day, I am still deeply moved by. It is astonishing to think that in just a few hours, a group of volunteers made an impact on nearly one-thousand children throughout the country. I remember walking away from this remarkable experience vowing to return to serve with Comfort Cases again.

When I moved to Maryland from Virginia, and began my new role as an AmeriCorps member serving as a Peer Leader with Volunteer Maryland, I learned that one of my responsibilities would be to plan service projects for my cohort of AmeriCorps members. I was overjoyed and immediately thought of, Comfort Cases. I am beyond ecstatic to report that on February 22, 2019, Volunteer Maryland’s Class 31 (VM31) served at Comfort Cases. I am even more excited to share the highlights and successes of the event!


Eleven Volunteer Maryland AmeriCorps members traveled from across the state to the Comfort Cases Headquarters in Rockville, MD. As our group was settling in and preparing to tour the facility, we had the privilege of meeting Comfort Cases’ founder, Rob Scheer. He warmly greeted our group and shared the story behind Comfort Cases, as well as the impact that the organization has made so far. As a child in the foster care system himself, Rob struggled with bouncing from home to home, carrying his belongings in trash bags. Years later, when Rob and his husband Reece decided to begin building their family, they adopted four children out of the foster care system. Rob recalls every one of their children arriving at their home toting garbage bags. He was shocked to see that children in foster care were still carrying their valuables around in trash bags. This motivated him to step up and make a difference by creating an organization that would ensure no other child would have to face the shame and humiliation of moving around with their belongings in garbage bags. Thus, Comfort Cases was born.

Since 2013, Comfort Cases has been serving thousands of youth in foster care across the United States. As Rob spoke to our group, he pointed out a US map (see attached photo) that highlights every location the organization has impacted. It was incredible to see how much ground Comfort Cases has already covered in its five plus years of operation.

Comfort Cases Service Project - Map of Impact
On display in the hallway of the Comfort Cases center is a pushpin map of every location where Comfort Cases has served. In addition to the 38 U.S. states highlighted, the organization has also served several regions in Puerto Rico. The white pushpins on the map signify that every county in that state has been reached by Comfort Cases.

Rob Scheer’s opening remarks were the perfect start to the day. What better way to get energized for a service project than to hear the founder speak about the organization he built? After that powerful introduction, we moved on to tour the Comfort Cases center. Markia Chambers, Comfort Cases’ volunteer coordinator, walked us through each of the storage rooms containing various items that are packed in the cases. Each room is designated and labeled for very specific items (i.e. there is an entire space dedicated to holding hundreds of pajama sets). With such a high volume of assorted inventory, the top quality organization of Comfort Cases stock is truly impressive.

After touring the center, our group was taken to the work area where volunteers typically serve. Empty backpacks line the shelves of a large room and are sectioned off by age range and organized by gender.  Our first volunteer task was to unbox newly donated bags, sort them into their respective categories (age-group and gender), and restock the shelves in preparation for packing. Once we completed this, we moved on to our main assignment of the day which took us through to the end of our shift.

Comfort Cases Service Project - Martha, Cassie, Allie, Devyn
VM31 members Martha Sullivan, Cassie Motok, Allie Matheu, and Devyn Croghan unpacking and sorting new backpack donations. Photo by Jason Neiswinter

In addition to receiving a backpack filled with supplies, each child is also given an empty duffle bag for their own possessions. As with anything Comfort Cases does for the youth they serve, great care is given to ensure youth feel valued and cared for. A personal touch is added to each duffle bag that is handed out.  Each bag is removed from its plastic casing, folded into a neat square, and tied with a double-knotted ribbon to hold it together. Then, they are placed back in their original box where they are sealed, labeled, and ready to be shipped. Several dozen boxes of individually wrapped duffle bags were waiting for our team to tear through them and give them additional value.  

To optimize efficiency, we divided our group into four teams. Each team tackled their own box of bags and split the various responsibilities amongst one another. Some members cut ribbon, while others unpacked and refolded the duffel bags. Others tied the bags with the ribbon and boxed them up for transport.

Comfort Cases Project - Wendi, Matt, and James
VM31 member Wendi Perry cutting ribbons for fellow cohort members James Schulte (pictured right) and Matthew Thornton (center) to tie onto duffle bags that will be distributed to youth in foster care to keep their personal items in. Photo by Jason Neiswinter

As more and more boxes were completed, a few of our members carted them away to their storage room and brought out fresh boxes for the group to continue unpacking and repackaging. At one point, everyone started feeling a bit competitive and decided to see which team could finish their box the fastest. While a winner was never officially determined (some may dispute this claim), our group was able to complete three boxes in under five minutes. The amount of positive energy that filled the room was spectacular! Every one of our members was committed to accomplishing as much as possible. While the exact number of completed boxes is unknown, it is estimated that our crew packed between fifteen to twenty boxes, each one weighing approximately forty pounds. Additionally, the team served a collective twenty-two hours (two hours per individual multiplied by eleven people). Talk about getting things done! I am so proud of my team and what we achieved.

Comfort Cases Service Project - Group Shot
VM31 members posing with a Comfort Cases banner at the Comfort Cases center in Rockville, MD. Front row (left to right): Allie Matheu, Jonathan Payne, Darien Gallagher, Cassie Motok, Martha Sullivan and Jason Neiswinter Back row (left to right): Jazmin Haley-Warren, James Schulte, Matthew Thornton, and Devyn Croghan

This was only my second time volunteering with Comfort Cases, but this service experience was even more memorable than the last. For an organization that dedicates itself to youth in search of a forever family, they do an amazing job of creating a familial atmosphere at their site. As soon as we entered the door, we were welcomed with warm hospitality. The staff was very attentive to our volunteering needs and actively supported us throughout the shift. They spent time engaging in conversation with us and getting to know us personally. Lastly, they took every opportune moment to express their gratitude for our time and effort. The Comfort Cases staff members did an outstanding job of making us feel valued and appreciated!

Science has proven that when a person has a transformational volunteer experience, parts of their brains are rewired. One’s empathy pathways are strengthened and the individual is able to relate with a community, person or situation in a new capacity. Although I have not directly interacted with the children that Comfort Cases serves, my volunteer experiences have strengthened my connection to the organization and its mission. Volunteer Maryland trains on the importance of a volunteer orientation, supervision and recognition. Comfort Cases exceptionally exemplified these three components of a volunteer program. I will forever be changed by my experiences at Comfort Cases and I look forward to working with them in the future!

 

Works Cited

“Our Mission.” Comfort Cases, http://www.comfortcases.org/mission.

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