ST. ALBANS — Along a rural Highgate road and up the stairs of a small log cabin, Adrienne Perrino sits in her workroom surrounded by fabric, thread and family keepsakes, trying to make a difference for local foster children.
Perrino, a 75-year-old retired teacher, spends many hours each week sewing quilts and bags with a small volunteer group that creates “Bags of Love.” The effort is conducted under the nationwide umbrella organization, “It’s My Very Own” (IMVO). In the Franklin County chapter, five local women put together bags with a handmade quilt, age-appropriate personal care items and toys.
These bags are delivered to the Department for Children and Families St. Albans District office from which they are delivered to children who have been removed from their homes, family, clothes, toys and everything else familiar.
“When you stop to think about a child being taken away from everything they know,“ it has to be the most devastating thing, especially for a child. It would be hard on adults,” said Perrino during an interview Tuesday.
Perrino has seen that first hand as a former foster parent. The bags, she said, are an effort to make that transition just the littlest bit easier. She first learned of the IMVO organization a decade ago when she saw it on the Christian television channel, 3abn. She was teaching about 60 hours a week, though, and wanted to be realistic.
“There’s no way someone could do this working full-time,” said Perrino. “It takes a lot of work, organizing.”
She waited until she retired to bring the project to her church, the Seventh-Day Adventists in St. Albans, which began an IMVO chapter in June 2014. Perrino took the lead, with church members Marlene Bouthillette, Cathy Choiniere and Paulette Johnson, and one woman from the Swanton Christian Church, Bev Rose, helping her.
“We are the third registered chapter in Vermont,” said Perrino. Once her group received the official IMVO manual, they got to work.
“It’s faith-based, but it’s a community service,” she added.
The first thing Perrino did was donate saved up fabric from her pre-teaching, sewing days. “I started using that until we got some money,” she said. Perrino sent letters to friends, family, neighbors and businesses, asking for money, fabric, quilts and any other donations to help with the Bags of Love, which cost about $75 per child.
“As the funds came in – God has really provided,” said Perrino. People donated all sorts of money, items and time, and students from Champlain College and Community College of Vermont pitched in, too. Much of the bag items came from Stuff and Things in Enosburg Falls, bought by Bouthillette.
“We have been given a lot of things – the community has really been generous,” said Perrino. She added that United Way recently awarded the group an emergency needs grant, too.
To put everything together, Perrino sews everyday except for Saturday, the Sabbath, and she often gathers with the other women to tie quilts together, to assemble bags with donated and bought items, and to write thank you notes to donors or volunteers.
The first bags of love were distributed in October 2014. In just over a year, the Franklin County IMVO chapter has doled out 70 bags for local foster children. Choiniere, who stores the completed bags in her Sheldon home, said that this past summer, she was dropping off bags – created to be age-appropriate and gender-specific – at DCF every week.
“Whenever they call,” said Choiniere. “Sometimes [children] get taken out of the homes and have absolutely nothing – it gives them something that’s theirs.”
St. Albans DCF Resources Coordinator Margi Cameron agreed. “This summer we placed several sibling groups of young children. Seeing these bags of love lined up ready for the social workers to bring to these children in their foster or kin homes was so bittersweet,” Cameron wrote in an e-mail Wednesday. “Always we need foster homes, and these Ladies of Love (as I call them) give us a boost. [They] help the children[,] caregivers, and the social workers through an important time.”
So far, Perrino and others have received this positive feedback not only from DCF and foster parents, but from the children themselves, too.
“We’ve heard from a couple of [kids] and how happy they are,” she said. She pulled out a hand-written thank-you card from a seven-year-old girl reading: “Thank you for the dolls and the blanket. Thank you for the coloring set it made me really happy. Thank you.”
Another, written on bright pink paper, read: “Thank you, thank you so much for sending me that bag you guys made my day and I was so [excited] when I saw everything thank you so much. P.S. I will cuddle with [the] quilt every night.”
Those notes, said Perrino, affirm why she and the others spend so much of their time sewing, gathering items and dropping off the bags at DCF.
“Our prayer is each child – that when they receive the bags they’ll somehow realize there are people who love them and the whole world isn’t crumbling in on them,” she said. “There is hope out there.”
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Anyone interested in helping create “Bags of Love” or donating time, money or items should contact Perrino at (802) 868-7652 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Those looking to just send a tax deductible donation can send it to “It’s My Very Own” Bags of Love, 184 Frontage Road, Swanton, VT 05488.