When children enter the foster care system, it’s usually because of some huge life event that they can’t control. For example, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 200,000 children across the country have lost a parent or other in-home caregiver.
Here in Tennessee, we have one of the highest rates of foster care in the nation. From COVID-19 to the economy, lots of things happen that can quickly change family situations. Suddenly, children are taken from the life they know and put into the care of a relative or foster family. Because they’re uprooted so fast, they often lack basic items to keep a “normal” life, like clothes, shoes, or book bags.
That’s where SMILE Foster Closet steps in. The non-profit group can provide such items for foster families — meeting a need Dr. Sarah Smiddy-Youssef often sees as a pediatrician at Holston Medical Group.
“Meeting basic needs is crucial. If kids don’t have food, shelter, and stability in their home life, we can’t even start to address other things,” says Dr. Smiddy-Youssef. “Children need to feel safe, fed, and clothed. Once those things are taken care of, then we can address them as patients. Only then can we talk about how they’re doing in school, how they’re feeling, etc.”
That’s why she is so pleased HMG’s Mission into Motion program assists SMILE Foster Closet in its commitment to help foster children. Through Mission into Motion, HMG has partnered with hundreds of community non-profits like SMILE Foster Closet to fill thousands of volunteer hours.
“We have so many people who are passionate about giving back and who truly have a servant’s heart,” Dr. Smiddy-Youssef says. “HMG promotes, encourages, and gives incentives for employees to give back to the communities we serve. That says a lot about their commitment to the community, and I am proud to be a part of the team at HMG!”
Helping Children Feel Safe
Many different kinds of homes make up foster families. Sometimes, children are placed with relatives. Other times, people take children into their homes after taking classes and getting certified to be foster parents.
Regardless, families who care for foster children don’t always know if they’ll be called upon to help an infant, a teenager, or any age in between. So, SMILE Foster Closet gives kids a duffle bag packed with a week’s worth of age-appropriate clothes — underwear, socks, shoes, pajamas, school clothes, and more — plus hygiene kits or baby equipment if they’re needed.
Unfortunately, foster care isn’t always continuous. “Many kids move around in the foster care system, often two times at least,” says Rachel Lawson, executive director at SMILE Foster Closet. “We are not a one-and-done service for these children. If they move again, or the seasons change, we can help them again.”
Asking for Help
SMILE Foster Closet serves eight counties in Northeast Tennessee. Last year it served 643 children, and expects that number to rise in the coming years.
Rachel says that many young children are placed with relatives or foster families who don’t already have cribs, high chairs, or baby toys. SMILE Foster Closet can help provide those, too.
Any foster situation with a state-appointed case worker is eligible for SMILE Foster Closet assistance. It’s easy! Foster families who need help just fill out a request form on the SMILE Foster Closet website. The needed items are packed and put into a drop box for pickup.
“They are really passionate about helping people who want to make these children’s lives easier,” Dr. Smiddy-Youssef says.
Providing More Smiles
SMILE Foster Closet is always looking for more volunteers. That’s where HMG comes in. This month, Dr. Smiddy-Youssef and her co-workers at Medical Plaza will get together to help pack hygiene kits for children and teenagers.
“SMILE Foster Closet is meeting the basic needs for kids, so we at HMG can better care for their overall health,” Dr. Smiddy-Youssef says.
SMILE Foster Closet makes it easy for other members of the community to help, too. It has created a portable sorting system for groups to pick up containers of items, sort them, and then return the containers to the closet. It can be an easy volunteer project for scout troops, fraternities or sororities, businesses, church groups, and other organizations to give back to the community.
“We could not possibly serve these children and families without our volunteers,” Rachel says. “The involvement of people like the volunteers from Holston Medical Group is invaluable. They spread awareness about foster care and the needs of foster families. We like to say that our community is our heartbeat. It’s what keeps us serving these kids.”
Community members who can’t donate time can donate clothing. Gently used donations of clothes and shoes are always welcome. “Designer” brands are an especially big hit among the teens in foster care.
“When you’re already having a hard time and you just want to fit in, getting a pair of Nike or Reebok shoes can do a lot, mentally, to help,” Rachel says.
In addition to clothes, SMILE Foster Closet accepts health and some nutrition items. You can check their annual calendar of donations for new and gently used items they accept each month and their regularly updated donation wish list on Amazon. They include monthly items like:
- Clothes for infant, kids, teens and adults; Shirts, pants, hoodies, coats, pajamas, swimwear, socks and underwear
- Baby equipment
- Diapers of all sizes and wipes
- Infant formula
- Hygiene items
- Hair brushes, combs, hair bands
- Feminine supplies
- School supplies
- Fidget toys
- Holiday stocking stuffers