As a foster child, Connie Bellows bounced from home to home. Now, the WilCo resident heads a nonprofit to provide ownership and dignity to foster kids.
When children enter the foster care system, they are often taken from school or from hostile home environments, plucked away from the lives they know with little to no advanced warning and given only a single box, grocery bag, or garbage bag to transport any personal possessions they may have into their new life. Because foster parents are worried children might act out if they know about their new placements sooner, they often delay telling children until immediately before a CPS worker arrives to collect the child.
“I can vividly remember arriving home from school and seeing my things packed in a trash bag or a box and my current foster family saying, ‘Connie, you’re going to be moving on tonight,’ recalls Williamson Country resident Connie Bellows. “So not even the same pillow and blanket that I slept with the night before would be the one I’d sleep with the following night.”
Connie made it through the foster care system and into adulthood, but memories of having her meager belongings dumped into a box or sack as if they were trash stuck with her. She knew that current foster children were experiencing the same humiliation as she did. And she decided to do something about that.
Bouncing from Home to Home
For Connie, “home” was never a permanent place, even when she was an infant. She was adopted at six weeks old, but a toxic home environment caused her to be taken from her home and placed into the foster care system at age 12. The oldest of three siblings, Connie was her parents’ only non-biological child, and the only child they placed in foster care.
Yet while Connie was whisked away from one tumultuous situation, in the same breath she was thrust into another. For the next six years, Connie was placed in several different foster homes.
Since Connie was ineligible for adoption, she found herself bouncing from foster home to foster home, plunged into a progression of different personalities, expectations, religions, and disciplinary styles. Though she wasn’t a “bad kid,” the frequent upheavals in her day-to-day living situations left her distrustful and confused. She takes some credit for intentionally disrupting her foster care placements.
“The sad reality of the foster care system—especially for children who are older and may not have a whole lot of trust in adults—is that it can be chaos,” says Connie. “Many times, kids feel that their birth families have let them down, and so they think that’s probably going to happen with the foster family as well.”
From Foster Kid to Foster Parent
Years later, Connie married Eric Bellows, the love of her life, and the two talked about growing their family. Connie entered the marriage with three biological children, but because she and Eric were unable to have biological children of their own, they decided to adopt through the foster care system.
“The foster care program is designed to give children a safe place to call home,” says Connie, “and so it goes to lengths to ensure a home is the best possible situation for the child.”
In order to adopt, prospective parents must become a licensed foster family, a certification process that includes parenting classes; home, cleanliness, and fire inspections; and extensive background checks. The Bellows received their certification as a licensed foster family in 2004. Their plan was to adopt one child to complete their family of six. But fate had other plans.
By 2008, Connie and Eric had fostered and adopted five children: a pair of siblings in 2007 and a group of three sisters in 2008, bringing their family to 10. “Even though our journey of fostering and adopting was finished, my heart knew we were not yet finished being of service to children in foster care,” says Connie.
In August of 2009, Connie awakened with a vivid recollection of what would turn out to be a prophetic dream. In it, she had started a nonprofit that provided suitcases to kids in foster care.
Connie began envisioning the possibilities. Given her background in the foster system and as a foster parent, she knew that providing foster children with suitcases and personal belongings would, in effect, give them a sense of dignity and ownership.
That day, over cheeseburgers at Red Robin, she told Eric that she saw the opportunity to make her dream a reality. He encouraged her, and soon after, Project Care Case was born. That Christmas, Connie and a community of compassionate supporters delivered their first set of 40 “Care Cases” to Starry, a Christian nonprofit that provides foster care and adoption opportunities.
Each Care Case provides a foster child with the basics and more: a wheeled suitcase, a minimum of two changes of new clothing, pajamas; socks, undergarments, personal hygiene items (toothpaste, toothbrush, shampoo, brushes, and combs), a teddy bear, a pillow and blanket, and a Bible in age-appropriate language.
“To protect the children, we do all of our contributing anonymously,” says Connie. “Instead of delivering cases to the foster family, we work with the agencies, which provide us with the child’s first name, age, gender, and size, so we know what clothing to buy.” In all, it costs about $150 to assemble a Care Case. Over the past six years, Project Care Case has put together more than 1,200 Care Cases for foster children in agencies in Central Texas.
Project Care Case relies on the generosity of compassionate families, individuals, churches, and Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops to raise money and purchase items for the cases. Connie’s goal is to have at least one church host a Care Case drive each month. “It touches my heart when families put together Care Cases as family Christmas projects or when children have birthday parties and request Care Case items in lieu of gifts for themselves,” she says.
“Not everyone can foster. Not everyone can adopt,” Connie says. “But I think the beauty of Project Care Case is that it makes service accessible for everyone, regardless of income. Simply by donating a Care Case item, people can put a smile on the face of a child in foster care.”
For more information on hosting a drive or donating to Project Care Case, visit www.projectcarecase.org.