Founder of 'I Belong Bags' wants Calgary youth in crisis to stop packing belongings in garbage bags
Local non-profit is attempting to fill 300 backpacks for children and youth in need
Tanya Forbes says she knows what it's like to question your self-worth.
At 15, she left home — which was Salmo, B.C. — to live with a family friend after having some disagreements with her mother. Things eventually worked out, and to this day, she keeps in touch with her foster mom, who continued to take in children after her.
A lot of young people aren't so lucky, Forbes said, with their journey to a new home beginning with a pretty traumatic moment.
"My foster mom had said to me, often kids would come with … either nothing or a garbage bag filled with whatever they can muster last minute," Forbes said.
"I felt that left a really psychological sort of mark, leaving with nothing or dragging a garbage bag behind you."
So, in 2018, Forbes created I Belong Bags, a non-profit providing backpacks stuffed with comfort and personal care items — like blankets, books and toothbrushes — for children up to 18 years old.
"This, at the time, was just something that was on my heart to do, and I just felt connected to it," she said.
Although the pandemic slowed her down, Forbes said she and several volunteers have now handed out about 200 bags through seven Calgary organizations, and she's looking to fill 300 more through a donation drive running June 15 to 30.
I Belong Bags is operating only in Calgary, but Forbes hopes to expand to other parts of Canada in the years to come.
"I know it's not the fix for everything, but it's just that meaning-making moment that we're trying to change," she said.
'It's an archaic practice'
Although Forbes started the non-profit wanting to focus on foster care, she's since expanded to include all children and youth who are in crisis.
Originally, she tried to provide the bags to Alberta's Ministry of Children's Services directly, but she said she was told they wouldn't accept her donations.
In a statement, Andrew Reith, press secretary to the minister of Children's Services, said the government "must ensure a consistent approach" is taken for children in care, and "any child in need of essential items, like backpacks, will be provided for by the government of Alberta."
Reith added children entering care shouldn't be getting garbage bags for their belongings.
Still, it happens in some situations, according to the director of development at the Children's Cottage Society, Sarah Hughes. They offer prevention programs and support services for families in Calgary, and Hughes said they often see young people coming to them with their belongings in trash bags.
"It's an archaic practice that has been around for many, many years," she said.
"If you speak to young adults or older children or anybody that's gone through the system, that's one of the most traumatic things for them is to be given a plastic bag and you pack your world into a plastic bag and off you go."
They've started handing out I Belong Bags to children entering their programs, with Forbes adding specifically requested items such as cuddly toys.
Hughes said they've handed out about a dozen bags so far, offering some dignity and respect to young people facing tough situations.
"They've loved it, they actually feel like they've got something personal, and they feel like they're taking themselves to their new home."
Another recent partner is Ronald McDonald House Charities Alberta, which helps families facing challenging medical situations. It will be handing out 10 bags over the next few weeks.
"When families get to the Ronald McDonald House, it can be very overwhelming … sometimes they show up with actually nothing," said Suzanne Pescod, the charity's director of marketing and communications.
"Maybe they were air ambulance lifted to the hospital or perhaps they were at their local health facility and they just had to get in the car and drive … so these bags are going to make a really big impact."
Tsuut'ina Nation Police Service is one of the non-profit's first partners. Acting Insp. Dawn-Lyn Blake, with its community impact and innovation section, said the bags "have assisted immensely with youth in times of crisis."
Forbes is hopeful the upcoming donation drive will allow them to support even more community partners, so if a request is made for backpacks, they'll have them ready.
Her passion for the project continues to stem from her own experience and thoughts of children leaving their home with a black plastic bag.
"Sitting with that at the bottom of your feet while you wait in an office to find out your fate, wondering where you're going to go," she said.
"That feeling of belonging and that somebody actually thought about you in that moment can make all the difference."