(Originally published on Dec. 20, 2011)
Editor's Note: Tracey McMahon was selected as the The Huffington Post's Greatest Person of the Day for Jan. 11, 2012. The feature recognizes citizens across the nation for their extraordinary efforts to make a difference in their communities. Congratulations, Tracey!
For 10 years Tracey McMahon has worked for the Georgia Division of Family and Children's Services serving Oconee, Morgan, Greene and Jasper counties. She's had the unfortunate task of removing kids from their homes, sometimes in the middle of the night, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
But it wasn't until a trip mid-last year to pick up three children -- two girls and a boy, ages 3 to 13 -- from LAX Airport and transport them back to Georgia that she realized the impact leaving home had on kids in the foster care system.
"They had almost nothing," she said. "Nothing but a couple of things in black trash bags."
McMahon, a Barrow County resident, and her co-workers purchased book bags at the airport and stocked them with some essentials -- sweat suits, toothbrushes and hairbrushes. The bags turned into lifelines when what was supposed to be a quick flight home turned into a couple of days because of some complications.
A light bulb went off
That's when McMahon says knew she wanted to make similar "Adventure Bags" available to all kids entering foster care.
Foster parents are going to take care of the children once they arrive, but the children still need basic items to get them through the transition period, she explained.
"Kids don't want to have to ask a stranger for a toothbrush," she said.
She pitched Adventure Bags to her husband, Eric, and her mother, Debbie Gori, and they were eager to help. Though McMahon works for DFCS, Adventure Bags is not affiliated with the department.
The first bag stuffing took place last October at McMahon's church in Lawrenceville. Volunteers were able to fill 141 bags-- far surpassing the goal of 100 -- and all bags have since been distributed to DFCS offices in Oconee, Gwinnett, Barrow, Morgan, Jasper and Greene counties.
In December, another church group donated a batch of bags that will be distributed in Lumpkin County, she said.
"It's amazing how it's spreading!" McMahon exclaimed, adding that she hopes Adventure Bags will grow to serve all Georgia counties in the future.
The ultimate goal is for each child to have a bag of their own that can serve the dual purpose of an overnight bag and a book bag for school, she said.
She hopes the bags will, at the very least, improve children's sense of security.
What's in the bag?
The following items are included in Adventure Bags, which are filled for toddlers, ages 5-9, tweens and teens:
- Stuffed Animal/Small Toy
- Washcloths or Puffs
- Soap or Body Wash
- Journals/Coloring or Activity Books
- Tag with Identifying Information and a Calendar
Sanitary napkins are also needed for teenage girls. Socks and underwear are stored in bins at each DFCS office and added to bags to fit the size and gender of the recipient.
Each office can submit monthly requests for additional items to restock their supply.
On the "wish list of wish lists," McMahon hopes to include donated gift cards in the amount of $10-$25 for each child to purchase an outfit or additional supplies.
How to help
Adventure Bags relies on individuals and businesses for donations. For more information, contact Debbie Gori at 678-425-0552 or Tracey McMahon at 404-787-6318. Emails may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sponsorships are also needed for a 5K race, scheduled for April 15, but the location has yet to be determined.
"You hear, 'It takes a village to raise a child,'" McMahon said. "Well, it takes a village to keep 'Adventure Bags' filled."