The Southwestern Michigan Association of REALTORS® (SWMAR) recently celebrated the end of their tenth annual fundraising program for Suitcases for Kids. The Association along with community support raised $5,500 in cash donations and collected over 130 backpacks and numerous personal items to help Berrien, Van Buren & Cass Foster Children.

The fundraiser benefits local foster children under the supervision of the Michigan Department of Human Services in Berrien, Van Buren, and Cass Counties. Many of the children have very little or no personal items that they can take with them when they are moved into foster care. So the new backpacks, new clothing and personal healthcare items make a huge impact during a sad and confusing time for foster children.

The community support for this fundraiser also contributed to its success. In addition to donating personal care items and cash donations, local businesses provided items for a silent auction.

The Suitcases for Kids committee members included Kelley Simpson, Angela Nutto, Jill Celie-Brenay, Kelly Luna, Meryl Green, Jenny Johnson, Tammy Anders and Kathy Pallas. The committee members are REALTORS or Affiliate Members of Southwestern Michigan Association of REALTORS.

The Michigan Department of Human Services directors for all three counties thanked the REALTORS at the celebration for their support and gave insight into what the program means to them personally and for the children under their supervision.

Tiffanni Mielke, Van Buren County Department of Human Services, commented, “The assistance this fundraiser provides has truly made a difference in the lives of the foster children of Van Buren County and we are so glad to have you as partners in our goal to normalize the childhood of these children.”

“We were able to send two children to summer camp this year. Sending children to camp for one week offers them an opportunity to be independent, form lifelong friendships, and an opportunity to feel normalcy. We also had the opportunity to help support one of our recent graduates start college with the needed start up goods that would normally be provided by birth families. This assisted our graduate in focusing on college classes and removing the worry about how to obtain basic necessities. Another example where we use monetary donations is for our Foster Care Craft Day where foster children can make gifts and cards for their birth parents, siblings and foster families,” Mielke continued.

“With the non-monetary donations, we were able to provide placement packs which included backpacks, toiletries, toys, blankets, a stuffed animal to hug, some clothing items, books, and some other personal items,” Mielke stated. 

From Berrien County DHS, Michelle Kuiken shared, “Berrien County Children’s Services owes SWMI Realtors a debt of gratitude because they have allowed us to ensure our kids are ready for school with a brand new backpack; have been allowed to go to summer camp when they’ve never done such a thing before; and, been able to take a pottery class at the Krasl and find out they are very talented and creative.  We have many children in foster care who had never seen Lake Michigan and with the support of the SWMAR our kids now have memberships at Curious Kids Museum and Discovery Zone!  The SWMAR has allowed our kids’ world’s to be opened up.”

Bethany Billington, Cass County DHS, stated, “Often, children come into foster care with very little to call their own, sometimes nothing. Children who are removed from an abusive and/or neglectful situation are uncertain about what is going on and where they will go. Something as simple as a blanket to comfort them or a toothbrush and a clean change of clothes to wear to school the next day can help a child to feel a little more secure within all of the chaos that is going on around them.”

Billington continued, “Cass County DHHS uses the clothing, toiletries, funds, toys, underwear, socks, backpacks, blankets, and numerous other donations from Suitcases for Kids to help make the transition into foster care a little less intimidating for the children going through this experience. The smile on a child's face when they get to pick out a new outfit, or when they realize that they can run around on the playground at school tomorrow because they now have a pair of boots to wear in the snow, is such a blessing to see within all of the sadness, anger, and confusion that they are feeling. The generous donations provided by Suitcases for Kids help caseworkers to provide a little bit of peace during a situation that can seem hopeless to a child. Cass County DHHS is very grateful and appreciative for the donations received from this amazing program.”

Suitcases for Kids was started in 1995 by 10 year-old, Aubyn Burnside after learning that the average child in foster care moves three to four times and traditionally carries his/her personal belongings from home to home in black garbage bags. This nonprofit international program has spread throughout the United States as well as nine foreign countries.  

Aubyn's story has been featured in eight books including Keeping President Clinton's Five-Point Promise to Children, Extraordinary Girls, Business of the Heart: How Everyday Americans Are Changing the World, and What Do You Stand For? (A Kid's Guide to Character). Segments about Suitcases For Kids have appeared on public television shows.


The Southwestern Michigan Association of REALTORS®, Inc. is a professional trade association for real estate licensees and ancillary service providers for the real estate industry in Van Buren, Berrien and Cass counties.  The Association is located at 3123 Lake Shore Drive St. Joseph, MI 49085, (269) 983.6375.  They can also be contacted through their web site, www.swmar.com.