This article first appeared in Kidsburgh.org, a media partner of NEXTpittsburgh that focuses on making Pittsburgh a better place to raise kids.
When she started Foster Love Project seven years ago, Kelly Hughes knew of the mad dash that foster parents experience when preparing to welcome a child into their home, sometimes with little notice.
As parents who have fostered eight children in their East End home over the years, she and husband Andrew know first-hand that moving-in day is traumatic for the kids, who need a boost to begin to restore the dignity they’ve lost. Hughes started by giving them a bag with items they could call their own — necessities and a few playthings, too.
Since then, her idea to help ease the first-day jitters has helped thousands of kids and their families make the transition. Each year, 500 kids shop at the Foster Love Project warehouse, which gave out more than $220,000 worth of goods in 2020. And now, the organization is finalizing paperwork to move into a new home on Trenton Avenue in Wilkinsburg.
“We moved into a rented space in a church in Dormont in 2017, and this past year we really have outgrown the space,” says Hughes, Foster Love‘s executive director. “We are finishing up some construction we had to do and we’re hoping to move into that facility in a month or two.”
The organization’s work has grown, too, with programs that address other needs. The Teen Connections Group, for kids ages 12-18, meets monthly at The Dragon’s Den in Homestead, giving teens a place to exercise on an indoor rope course or just talk with other kids who will understand what they’re feeling.
“Our teen group is for teens who have experienced foster care or adoption,” says Hughes. “We have mentors who help with fun activities with them.”
The back-to-school program in August provided 180 kids with new sneakers, sweatshirts, school supplies and backpacks. And the Fill-A-Suitcase Gift Card Initiative in September will help foster kids buy other things they need at Target or Walmart.
Help continues throughout the year: The annual bag drive happens in November, while in December, an “angel tree” program collects Christmas wishes from kids and matches them with donors from clubs, groups or businesses.
“We had a desire to help families in our community who maybe needed some extra support,” Hughes says. “The goal of foster care is always that kids are reunited with their families, so we try to be actively supportive in helping that happen if it’s possible. There are many families in our communities who are struggling and need support.”
Foster Love Project became a 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2016 — just two years after Hughes founded the organization with the first bag drive to collect blankets, toothbrushes and toothpaste, bath puffs, socks, books and stuffed animals for kids heading into foster care.
“I had a goal of bringing in 300 bags — we had 1,300 that were donated,” she says. “That was a really great response from the community, and a lot of it was creating awareness of this need. Many people didn’t know what the process was when a child had to move into a foster home, so we used social media and news outlets to help spread the word. And ‘mommy blogs’ were a big thing back then, so some of them jumped on board.”
Since that first bag drive, Foster Love Project has collected some 14,000 bags for distribution in four states. “We collect more than we even need for our immediate area,” Hughes says. “We’re able to spread the wealth out there.”
When foster families began reaching out, the organization helped many to find diapers, clothing and strollers. Regular donors and grants from The Pittsburgh Foundation, Snee-Reinhardt Charitable Foundation, PPG Foundation and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have stabilized the assistance available.
The new landlord in Wilkinsburg had a warehouse and “didn’t need it for that purpose anymore,” Hughes says. “So we began to have a conversation about how we could help benefit the community, and they felt like it was a great resource.”
The Hugheses are parents to four kids, ages 9, 10, 10 and 12, who like to help out with the organization’s events. Fostering was something that came naturally, Hughes says: “In my heart, I always wanted to take that step to help kids.”
Her husband has a full-time job and she was working part-time when they began fostering. “But we had two toddlers at the time as well, so having four or five kids under age 5 became my full-time job,” she says. “Now, it’s Foster Love full-time.”
Of all the goodness that Foster Love Project has been able to spread, Hughes is most proud of her staff’s teamwork.
“Our staff is so intentional about the dignity of each child who comes into our center,” she says. “We center everything we do around what the child needs. We know kids have lost a lot of choices and things in their life, so when they come into foster care, we’re intentional about giving them choices. They choose the clothes and shoes that are comfortable, the toys they want to play with, the books they want to read.
“The goal is giving a child a dignified experience and making them feel loved any time they are at our center or participating in one of our events.”