ST. JOSEPH, MI  Setting a record, 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 $11,411 in cash donations and collected over 90 backpacks and 3000 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.


Kelley Simpson, Committee Chairman, for the Suitcases for Kids program commented, The support of the REALTORS and Affiliates this year has been outstanding. The Committee this year also reached out to the community to help support this program. We placed donation boxes in local schools which helped us collect more personal items and school supplies. Local businesses provided items for a silent auction. We were really blessed with the opportunity to team up with Joique Bell and his foundation. REALTORS and Affiliate Members volunteered to help at his football and cheerleading camp in May at the Benton Harbor High School. Joique donated $3.00 to our program from every camp registration. I am looking forward to next fall when we start the next campaign and rallying our group to set another record for Suitcases for Kids.

The Suitcases for Kids committee members included Kelley Simpson, Chelley Bussey, Frank Noble, Meryl Green, Tim Ritchie, 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.
Julie Becktell, Van Buren County Department of Human Services, commented, We are so grateful for the funds and items provided to us by the Southwestern Michigan Realtors Association. We have been able to utilize these funds for a variety of special needs, including a specialized "Car Bed" for a medically fragile foster child, sending kids to summer camp, funding our Operation Good Cheer which provides Christmas gifts to all foster children, providing needed furniture, diapers and formula to help foster parents to care for sibling groups and infants to name a few things that are not in our budget. In addition, the personal care items provided were used to make placement packs that every child entering care receives. We include pajamas, at least one outfit, toiletries, an age appropriate toy or book, and a blanket at the minimum in these packs. School age children receive a backpack and school supplies in addition to the placement pack. For infants, we also include diapers and other baby items. The other items donated may be earmarked for a specific child or situation where the items can be put to good use, Becktell stated.

Becktell continue, I believe every one of our children has been touched or assisted in some way by the donations you have made over the past few years. It is hard to express how much your assistance means to these children and families. Once again please accept our heartfelt thanks for your efforts.

From Berrien County DHS, Michelle Kuiken shared, The support we receive from the Suitcases for Kids Campaign helps us to know there is a group of people who care about our kids all the time. We have been able to make sure our kids get to participate in any sport they wish; to have all the new gear they need to participate; to take musical instrument lessons with their own instrument; to attend any camp they wish; get a new beautiful prom dress or tux; and, to get the nicer pair of glasses instead of the frames approved by Medicaid. Your help allows our kids to feel normal in a very abnormal situation.

Karen Mikosz, Cass County DHS, stated, Suitcases for Kids provides Cass County DHHS with gracious monetary gifts along with generous donations of clothing, toys, educational items, and basic necessities which we utilize throughout the year for children who have been removed from their homes and are placed into foster care. The majority of these children are removed with nothing but the clothing they are wearing at the time of the removal and many times we are unable to acquire any of their belongings from their homes due to the homes being infested with bedbugs or cockroaches. Suitcases for Kids has provided us with a means of meeting the basic needs of these children, many of whom are ecstatic when we give them clean underwear, socks, clothing, toys, and personal hygiene products all in a suitcase or bag that is their very own and which doesn't need to be shared with anyone else.

Mikosz continued, The openhearted support we receive from Suitcases for Kids allows us to provide children with basic necessities and items they will need as they transition into foster homes, which is truly a life-altering event. Suitcases for Kids makes it possible for caseworkers to supply these small items to children who are scared, grieving, angry, and scared and helps provide a small glimmer of hope for children who are so deserving of it.

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 FivePoint 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.

ABOUT 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.