[Episcopal News Service] When the Rev. Andrea Gardner went into the foster care system at 14 years old, she had to carry all her belongings between homes in a trash bag. Now an adult, she doesn’t want other children and youth in foster care to experience what she names an “indignity.”
“A child, though no fault of their own, is already in a tough situation, and now they’re being carried off to God knows where with God knows who,” Gardner, deacon of both Christ Church (Old Swedes) Episcopal Church in Upper Merion, Pennsylvania, and St. Augustine of Hippo Episcopal Church in Norristown, Pennsylvania, told Episcopal News Service. “A child never knows what they’re going to get going into this new home. So, having the indignity on top of having to pack their stuff in a trash bag is not good.”
While training to become a deacon in 2021 through the Iona Collaborative at Seminary of the Southwest, Gardner completed a six-month parish placement at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Oaks, Pennsylvania. During the program, which is akin to an internship, Gardner decided to ask parishioners to donate gently used suitcases for children and youth living in foster care within the Diocese of Pennsylvania. Within six weeks, she collected some 200 suitcases to donate to the Montgomery County Office of Children and Youth and another agency in Reading.
Gardner told ENS that Family Services of Montgomery County later notified her that one of the luggage pieces — a burgundy suitcase — never made it into storage because it went straight to a teenage girl who was walking around the office building carrying her belongings in a trash bag.
“As a result, she was able to leave with her head held a little bit higher,” Gardner said.
After her parish placement concluded, Gardner applied to become a candidate for holy orders. During her interview with the diocese’s Commission on Ministry, Gardner shared the story of the burgundy suitcase. After the interview, Kurt Williams, president of the Philadelphia chapter of Union of Black Episcopalians and a member of the commission, called Gardner to inquire about collaborating. Gardner, who was ordained in 2022, and members of the Union of Black Episcopalians held a luggage drive throughout February 2023 for the four hospitals in the Main Line Health system, which serves portions of Philadelphia and its western suburbs. Altogether, they collected 700 suitcases for Main Line Health, and another 200 suitcases for Catholic Social Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
“We were inundated,” said Gardner, who has also donated suitcases to Episcopal churches within the Diocese of Pennsylvania and local service agencies.
In Philadelphia, about 3,400 children and youth are in foster care at any given time, according to the city of Philadelphia’s website. Nationwide, more than 400,000 children and youth are in foster care.
Children and youth can enter foster care for different reasons, including abuse, neglect or abandonment by their parents or legal guardians. The experience is traumatizing because children and youth are being removed from their homes, and siblings are oftentimes separated from each other, according to the National Institute of Health. Additionally, they can be susceptible to the same abuse and mistreatment from foster parents. For Gardner, having to carry her possessions in a trash bag while in foster care was “humiliating” and “stayed with me throughout my life,” she said.
Collecting suitcases for children and youth in foster care has attracted media attention in recent years. Actress and stand-up comedian Tiffany Haddish, best known for her breakout role in the movie “Girls Trip,” is outspoken about her experience in foster care: “I remember when I got my first suitcase, I felt like I was a traveler, like I had a purpose, like I’m a person, like I’m not garbage, I got this — it’s mine, and my things are in here, and wherever I go I can take this with me and I’m going somewhere,” Haddish said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
In 2017, Haddish established the She Ready Foundation, a Burbank, California-based nonprofit committed to providing resources for children and youth in foster care, including suitcases and internship opportunities.
Gardner said she wants to encourage Episcopal churches nationwide to start collecting luggage for children and youth in foster care. “It’s so simple and a very worthwhile activity once you get through logistical planning and find volunteers,” she said.
“We are charged with looking out for the people on the margins. We take seriously the words, ‘Just as you did for the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me,’ and I think it is just extremely important to not let anyone fall by the wayside in our society,” Gardner said.
“As we walk through our communities, pay attention to the needs of your community and find a way to help … Look around and ask what you can do to make a difference in the world you live in. Sometimes, that does not have to be as large as you might think. It can literally be an agency that is on a corner from where you live, not something that is halfway across the world. Just pay attention to your own community and see how you can affect change there.”
-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at email@example.com.