The call to Anita Olson came one night about two months ago.
A child protective services worker was placing two toddlers and an infant in emergency foster care, and she needed help. A police officer had found the children, ages 3, 2 and 1, in the back seat of a car on Interstate 35E after pulling over their intoxicated father.
They were wearing only diapers.
“They had nothing else,” Olson said. “They were going into placement, and they didn’t even have an outfit to put on them to move them to where they needed to go.”
Olson agreed to meet the worker and the children at the foster home where they were being placed. She brought a diaper bag and two backpacks filled with diapers, wipes, baby bottles, outfits, underwear, pajamas, toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, blankets, books and stuffed animals.
Olson is the executive director of Safe Haven Foster Shoppe, a non-profit organization that provides essentials to children in foster care and comfort during a difficult time. The organization, which serves 13 counties in Minnesota and western Wisconsin, has helped more than 2,000 foster children since Olson and her sister, Terra Bastolich, founded it two years ago.
They moved their headquarters to Lindstrom in Chisago County last summer and their storefront is open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays for people to either donate items or volunteer.
“I’ve fostered about 30 children, and every single one of the kids came in with nothing,” said Olson, a licensed foster-care provider who lives in Isanti. “They needed things to be able to go to school the next day, or to go to bed.”
‘SOMETHING THEY GET TO CALL THEIR OWN’
Safe Haven Foster Shoppe provides items for newborns to 18 year olds. Every item is brand-new and delivered to the child or children at their foster home in a new backpack or diaper bag. Teen bags include additional items such as sports bras and feminine hygiene products.
“It’s a very hard time in their life,” Olson said. “They are ripped away from everything they know. They might get picked up at school, and they don’t get to go home. Not that this is going to make up for it, but at least it gives them something. It says, ‘You matter. You make a difference. You’re important.’ Some of them come from really bad situations.”
The children and teens take the bags — and their contents — home with them or to their next foster placement, Bastolich said.
“Everything goes directly to the children, not to the homes,” Bastolich said. “It’s something they get to call their own. They know, ‘This is mine, it’s brand-new, nobody else has ever had it before.’ Often the children coming into those homes are already traumatized, and to have to wear hand-me-downs can make it even more challenging, especially with teenagers.”
Outfitting teens can be especially hard, so volunteers work “to try and stay current” on fashion trends, Olson said.
“We don’t want to give teenagers something that Grandma would wear,” she said. “We want to make sure they’re getting things that they’re going to actually enjoy because otherwise we’re doing this for nothing.”
500+ BAGS IN ONE YEAR
Safe Haven volunteers shop the clearance racks all year long and stock up on Black Friday.
“Look at this,” said Bastolich, holding up a light-blue backpack decorated with pandas. “Someone got it for $2. It’s amazing the sales that people find. We have the best bargain shoppers on our team.”
The backpack was the first item Bastolich selected while “shopping” for a 6-year-old girl’s placement pack this month in the organization’s Lindstrom headquarters.
Next on the list was a fleece blanket. Bastolich sifted through dozens of them before finding the perfect one, decorated with unicorns. A 10-pack of underwear, also decorated with unicorns, was added to her stack. Next came hot-pink leggings decorated with silver unicorns.
“I have two little boys, so I especially love to make the girl bags and shop for little girls,” Bastolich said.
Once all the items were collected, Bastolich faced the daunting task of packing them into the light-blue backpack. “It’s like a game of Tetris to try to get everything to fit in,” she said.
Each packed bag is valued between $60 and $100. Last year, the organization packed and gave away more than 500 bags.
FOSTERING IS A FAMILY AFFAIR
Olson and her husband, Josh, have four children. Their son, now 5, was adopted through the foster system. He has lived with them since he was 2 days old.
“We just really love kids,” Anita Olson said. “After having three of our own, we decided we really wanted to help other kids. We have a home, and we have a lot of love to give. We figured if we could bring them in and give them just a period of time where they are able to stabilize their life a little bit and help out, then why not?”
Olson and Bastolich’s parents, Marty and Gail McGuire, of Wyoming, Minn., adopted their brother after fostering him, and their maternal grandparents, Ray and Gloria Westling, were longtime foster-care providers in Kanabec County.
“They took in teenagers,” Bastolich said. “They felt that they could really help with the older kids and be mentors to them. A lot of people don’t want to take in teenagers, so there’s a huge need.” Many of their former foster children, now in their 50s and 60s, still “come back and visit them and keep in touch,” she said.
Olson and Bastolich operated Safe Haven out of New Hope Community Church in Isanti for two years before moving to downtown Lindstrom in June. Olson said landlord Michael Haehnel offered the organization a discounted rate on the 1,200-square-foot space and also donated the use of a 800-square-foot building in December for their holiday drive.
DONORS LEND THEIR SUPPORT
Cindy Herrmann, of Wyoming, stopped by recently to drop off dozens of pairs of brand-new pajamas and toothbrushes — $200 worth — that she and her extended family had either brought to Thanksgiving dinner or purchased on Black Friday.
“We pick one organization each year to support,” Herrmann said. “I feel that it’s important to teach our kids to give back.”
Herrmann adopted her son, Malachi, 16, when he was 6 after fostering him.
“They all want their own things,” she said. “You get taken from your home — you want nice pajamas and a toothbrush that is yours.”
Renee Kirchner and Christina Vollrath, who work in human resources at Chisago County, also dropped by Safe Haven on a recent Wednesday. They brought $2,365 in checks, which county employees raised during a holiday-basket raffle.
Olson gave them a tour of the donation center’s infant room, which included a bin of brand-new baby bottles.
“Did you know the Holiday in town doesn’t sell baby bottles?” she said. “At 2 in the morning, there is nothing out here that is open, which makes it hard if you are placing an infant. It’s different if you have a 5-year-old who is hungry, because you can go through the McDonald’s drive-thru. … That was our goal: You don’t have to run out and buy anything. Everything is in the bag: a bottle to feed them, baby food, wipes, fluoride-free toothpaste.”
OFFERING NECESSITIES AND COMFORT
Social workers or foster parents can fill out an online form on Safe Haven’s website with specific instructions as to age, gender and sizes. Shoes, boots and winter wear also are available.
Nowhere on the backpack or bag does it say “Safe Haven Foster Shoppe.”
“I don’t want a child googling, ‘Oh, what is this? Oh, it’s from a charity,’” Olson said. “We want them to fit in with their peers as much as possible.”
Olson and Bastolich seemingly have thought of everything. One bin in the donation center, for example, is filled with night lights and flashlights.
“A lot of kids are in a new home, so having that extra light for them can be a comfort,” Olson said. “It’s really about anything that can comfort them.”
About 150 children and teens are in out-of-home placement in Washington County on any given day, said Sarah Amundson, manager of the county’s Community Services Division.
Handling and storing donated items for foster children can be difficult, so having Safe Haven volunteers “step in and provide some of those basic needs is really nice,” she said. “Because when a child-placement happens, it can sometimes happen very quickly.”
A delivery of a packed diaper bag means a foster parent can get through “that first night without having to run out to the store right away,” Amundson said. “It also means a (social) worker won’t have to scramble and find those things when they’re trying to talk to foster parents and work with kids and prepare everyone for a placement.”
Social-service workers are able to access placement packs at Safe Haven whenever they need. Foster children also are invited to go to the donation center and “shop” in person.
“Not everyone wants to foster kids, and that’s OK,” Olson said. “This is a way for people to really give back and get involved and support the kids in our own community.”
When a 12-year-old foster girl arrived at the Olsons’ house earlier this year, Anita Olson said she had everything she needed.
“She was bawling,” she said. “She had just gotten picked up at school and was super-disheveled. I was able to hand her an entire bag and send her into the bathroom to shower. She didn’t have to ask me for anything.”
The Safe Haven Foster Shoppe Holiday Hope Bag Drive runs through Dec. 31. Donated items must be new with tags; items can be dropped at the organization’s headquarters at 12765 Lake Blvd. in Lindstrom, or at one of 19 other drop-off locations listed on the organization’s website.
Financial donations can be made online. For more information, go to safehavenfostershoppe.org