Normally they arrive with just the clothes on their back.
They could be wearing worn hand-me-downs from an older sibling who may be next to them when they enter a stranger’s home late at night.
Sometimes, they have the chance to pack some extra clothes, by hastily tossing them into a trash bag before they were taken from their home. They arrive at that stranger’s home clenching all they have, facing people who would become their foster parents.
Sometimes, they are in foster care for a day or two, until a biological family member steps up to care for them. Sometimes, it’s weeks, maybe years. Sometimes, they never go home. Sometimes, no one ever comes for them.
There are around 150 foster children in Lea County and for the 64 foster families that open their doors to them, they now have Emma’s Closet.
“There are so many kids in need,” said Lori Fair of Emma’s Closet, a local organization that has teamed with CASA of Lea County to provide new or slightly used clothes or other items that Lea County’s foster children can have.
“I have a 4-week-old baby that is placed in my home right now,” said Fair, a foster mom for the past two years. “We also have a 3-year-old that was placed with nothing. So I have to go and get the baby needs. So I found talking with foster parents, it is so hard for them sometimes to be able to afford the basic needs of a baby or a toddler. These children grow like crazy so whatever we can get will be used.”
Whatever they “can get” includes new clothes, slightly used shoes and any types of items associated with small children, from car seats and carriers, to cribs and walkers. Emma’s Closet has a partnership with Hope Totes to provide hygiene items like toothbrushes and toothpaste.
“We don’t have the manpower to take slightly used clothing right now because people have different definitions of ‘slightly used,’” Fair said. “We also are asking for new baby bottles and formula. We won’t take food, but we think formula is important for newborns.”
The idea for Emma’s closet came about the time Fair, and her husband, Jeff, became foster parents two years ago. The first child they received is named Emma.
“I had to go to the daycare to pick her up and I didn’t even know her last name,” Fair said. “I walked in and asked if they had a child there named Emma?”
Fair said the then-3-year-old wore the only clothes she had, which didn’t fit her. Emma also didn’t have shoes. She needed them, they met on Dec. 4, 2017.
A year later, Emma went back to her biological parents. Fair continued talking with other foster parents about the financial hardships in fostering.
“I think the misconception of society is that when kids come into foster care, No. 1 the foster parents are handed a check with the kid, so they can get all of the children’s needs, or that the kids come with the stuff from their home, and that is absolutely false,” said former foster mom Kelly Harrison. “These children are taken out of bad situations and could be wearing their pajamas or clothes that are clean, dirty or doesn’t fit. That’s how they come because it is emergency placement.”
Harrison, who has fostered for about two years, received a boy right after birth and adopted him at age 1 1/2. Her son is now 12.
Fair and Harrison said they often talked about the needs to help foster families. Ideas floated about needing a foster “closet,” but they realized that it would be a huge endeavor.
“We had big dreams, but couldn’t put it into place,” Harrison said.
By then the organization had a board and an idea to visit with CASA of Lea County, which helps in child advocacy in the court system. Oftentimes these foster kids work with CASA advocates.
“Which makes Emma’s closet within our mission for helping these children,” said CASA of Lea County Executive Director Megan Gallegos.
Fair said she met with Gallegos and program manager Ann Murdock and their decision was to build a presentation for the CASA early this past summer.
“It opened my eyes to the needs of the foster families,” Gallegos said of the presentation. “Some of the reasons people may not foster is because of these needs they don’t have but need access to. So, to know there is a need and that we could help partner and help be a part of fulfilling that need, I was very excited.”
Another reason to be excited is that Emma’s Closest is already too big for its britches. The closet are two rooms with CASA’s celebration closet building, behind the CASA headquarters at 501 N. Linam Street.
One room is filled with clothes, shoes and baggage. The second room has cribs, walkers and car seats.
“Yeah, even as we have this ribbon cutting, we are already looking for a bigger space,” Fair said at Friday’s ribbon-cutting. “It’s a good problem to have.”
Once things fell into place and a closet was a reality, Fair realized she needed a proper name for the organization. There were several names tossed around before she had a conversation with her father.
“He told me I should make it personable and name it after someone within the foster program, maybe a child,” Fair said. “It was a no-brainer at that point. Emma was our first foster child. It was perfect.”
Fair said her family still sees Emma. She attends the same daycare the Fair children attend.
“Emma still calls our daughter Sissy,” Fair said. “It’s been great staying close and we have a pretty good relationship with the biological parents. Emma’s mother thanked me so much for taking such good care of Emma. We have met up at McDonald’s where we can share an ice cream and let the kids play in the indoor playground.”
It started with a little girl with no shoes. Today, there is a large rack of new shoes next to several baggage items, clothes and other items for Lea’s foster children.
“It’s such a traumatic moment in their lives, to be able to give them something new and something they can call their own is a precious step in their recovery,” Fair said.
Donations for Emma’s Closet can be given on Wednesdays from 8-11 a.m. or by appointment at 407-756-0028.