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Smithfield seniors step up to help foster children

By Ron Scopelliti

A chance meeting in Smithfield has resulted in a connection between three organizations that will benefit a group that often flies under the radar – children in foster care.

On Feb. 20, the Smithfield Senior Center welcomed a group of 4-H Club members who helped craft handmade blankets for children in the foster care system. The fabric was paid for with funds raised by Senior Center members and guests.

The project started when Senior Center director Karen Armstrong and her daughter were at the Farmers Market at Seven Cedars Farm, selling fleece blankets they make. While there, they met a member of HopefullRI, a group that provides handmade fleece blankets and drawstring bags as comfort items to Rhode Island’s foster children.

Janelle Hollis, who co-founded HopefullRI with Katy Hall at the end of 2013, says the two of them were looking for a way to give back to the community, and saw foster children as a group that deserves more attention. According to their mission statement, HopefullRI aims “to help these children know that they’re not alone, and that there is a community of people that care about them and want to show them that they are loved, one fleece blanket and bag at a time.”

“I just feel like so many people are unaware of all the foster children we have just right here in our state,” Hollis says. “At any given time, there are 2,500 foster children just in our little state of Rhode Island.”

While blankets are an obvious symbol of comfort worldwide, the drawstring bags have a very practical purpose.

“A lot of these kids are uprooted immediately from home to home, and they don’t have anything to put their things into,” Hollis says. “And they’ve found that these drawstring laundry bags are just a nice thing to have.”

They also provide a more comforting and dignified option than having to transport their belongings in garbage bags, as children often do when they move to a new home.

After they’re made, the bags and blankets are given to Adoption Rhode Island, a private non-profit organization, which distributes them to children at their discretion.

Though Hollis doesn’t come into direct contact with the foster children her organization serves, she says the bags and blankets have been a hit, according to feedback she’s received from Adoption Rhode Island.

“They latch onto them,” she says. “It’s really nice to hear.”

After the chance meeting at the farmer’s market, Armstrong donated a number of the blankets she and her daughter made. But she decided that in addition to making a personal donation, she could do something better. So she ran a fundraiser at the Smithfield Senior Center to buy felt, and the seniors responded enthusiastically, raising a total of $215.

Once the funds were collected, Armstrong purchased a variety of different fabrics suitable for both boys and girls, and took it to the center, where seniors cut out the basic shapes of the blankets.

As the project was in progress, Armstrong received a call from Deb Sutherland who wanted to reserve the Senior Center’s function room for the adoption party of her foster son. Though she had never heard of HopefullRI, Sutherland wanted to help once she learned about the project.

“She got her grown daughter’s 4-H Club to get involved,” Armstrong says. “The whole thing just took off.”

So on a Saturday afternoon in February, 4-H Club members and a few seniors who showed up to lend further support, got together to finish up the blankets. So far, Hollis says, they’ve received 29 blankets, and there are still more being made by 4-H members with the fabric that Smithfield seniors supplied. On top of that, some of the more advanced 4-H sewing enthusiasts are now interested in making drawstring bags.

Hollis says that events like the one at the Senior Center not only provide HopefullRI with blankets and bags, but help them form connections not just with organizations, but with individuals. People will often approach her with their own personal stories regarding adoption or foster care, as they did at the Smithfield event.

“Someone will come up and say ‘I’m adopted; I was in foster care; I’d like to do something,’” she says.

Armstrong says the project was such a hit with seniors, she plans to make it an annual event. “Every January we will collect for HopefullRI. We’ll collect for the month, then we’ll get together in February and make them again.”

For more information on HopefullRI, visit www.hopefullRI.org or www.facebook.com/HopefullRI