The great thing about my position is in my office, detectives "get what they get". This means that on one night, I can be handling a shooting...and on the next night, a child sex offense. It's a great police experience to work a variety of violent crimes....but Child Abuse has always been a thing for me (for lack of a better term). It is through this experience that I've been able to see first hand the bad things that happen to children in our community. I've had the guidance of very experienced detectives who guided me along the way. I've also been lucky enough to work for a department that has sent me to numerous child abuse training courses around the country to stay proficient in investigations and prosecutions of these types of cases.
There was one thing lingering in the back of my mind that had bothered me for many years. I was one of the "lucky ones" when it came to being an adult survivor of abuse. Yeah, I certainly have my issues, but in the grand scheme of things, I turned out halfway OK. Many of those that I was in care with didn't fare so well. Too many people I was in care with suffered from addiction and mental health problems. There were way too many suicides and fatal drug overdoses. One foster brother ended up killing his wife and is now doing a life sentence. All of these things trouble me...greatly. So, The Blue Ribbon Project initially came about as a "hobby" (I hate using that term). I made some videos to raise awareness and built a website with articles regarding mental health, addiction, etc. This is why you see those types of articles on our website. I wanted to help those I was in care with in some way.
Additionally, over the past few years, I kept hearing about this organization called CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates). I remember driving down the road when I heard a radio commercial talking about it. I thought to myself, heck...if only we had those back when I was a kid. I tinkered with the idea of becoming a CASA for many years but was reluctant to follow through. Eventually I did sign up and became the CASA for some kids that became very special to me (I'll get into that in a later post as well). Towards the end of 2014, I was playing with a few ideas about what to do with The Blue Ribbon Project. After seeing first hand through police investigations how these kids were entering care...and how the CASA kids were when they entered care, it hit me. Seriously, I was laying in bed one night and I thought "Hmmm...BACKPACKS!!!". What about backpacks that contain emergency essentials for kids when they enter foster care? I thought back to my time when I entered care and was in school at the time. I didn't get the opportunity to go home and get what I needed and off into care I went. I started thinking about a few details...toothbrush....toothpaste....pajamas...a stuffed animal...I began to get excited about all of this and said something to my wife Amanda who really wasn't awake at the time. I laid there thinking about it for a bit...I also had to come up with a name. I thought of many names and eventually settled on "Backpacks of Love". (Had I known it would take off the way it did, I probably would have given the name a bit more thought). The following day, I talked to Amanda about it and she says it's a great idea and I should follow through on it. I reached out to a police officer I know who is a foster parent and asked him. He too thought it was a great idea and spoke about how his now adopted daughter came into their home. He put me in touch with a supervisor at Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services Foster Care Unit...who agreed to meet with us.
I'll be honest...I had only worked with DSS on the CPS (Child Protective Services) side of things. I really thought that DSS was going to tell me to pound sand about this silly backpacks idea. You know, them being a huge government agency and probably didn't want me in their business. Well, I was wrong...very wrong. They not only thought it was a great idea but were greatly supportive of it. Over several weeks, we hammered out some rules and details about how the program would work. Amanda and I had a spare room in our home so we had the perfect set-up. My thought was we'd have a couple of backpacks laying around that would go out to a couple of kids. It's a funny story I like to share about my wife Amanda..we'd have "a couple of backpacks". We started building some backpacks and initially ended up with like 4 or 5 and continued to build. We had to change a few things regarding age groups....Then we hit about 20 backpacks. Yeah, this would last us (so I thought)!. A few people I had met through various channels had donated a couple of backpacks to the program.
On January 14, 2015, I received an e-mail from the Foster Care supervisor telling me some incredible news. The powers that be at Department of Social Services approved the program and gave me the official green light. 5 hours later, Annapolis Police Department responded to a child abuse call and two siblings were removed from their home and went to Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis. The worker, who had barely heard of this silly backpacks thing, told me these two didn't have anything and would need Backpacks of Love. It was hard to imagine that on the very first day, two backpacks were going out. I scrambled into action and went home to grab the backpacks and took them to the hospital. For their privacy, I won't share their story....but will tell you what happened. I handed these two kids their backpacks and I can't describe the reaction. The older child pulled a pencil from his backpack and began running around the Emergency Room shouting "A lead pencil!!!". I could not believe this kid was getting excited over a stupid pencil. The kids were equally excited about the new clothes, toothbrush, and other items in the backpack. These kids were screaming with excitement. It reminded me of Ralphie when he got his Red Rider BB gun...Christmas times 10. It was at this very moment it occurred to me...we were doing the right thing...and this program was the right thing to do. I also realized from their reaction that a silly backpack was world changing for those kids. It was the first time in my life I had ever seen nurses and DSS workers cry. A week later, I got a call from the DSS worker who shared the kids still had their backpacks and one was proud of his new toothbrush and was brushing 6 times a day. The worker also left the home covered stickers that came in the backpack.
Over the following weeks, I began collecting donations from friends. Chick Fil A in Edgewater Maryland (a place I have been going to for many, many years) offered to do a spirit night to collect donations. People came in droves...the media was interested. We came out of there with carloads of donations. That extra room in our home....nope, filled up immediately and the hunt was on for additional space. I told my wife that The Blue Ribbon Project was no longer a "hobby". I created an official organization and applied with the feds to be a 501(c)(3). Who would have thought a board of directors and all that stuff? Even then, I had no idea what things would become. I never imagined multiple counties in Maryland. I never imagined people lining up to volunteer. I never imagined the different programs that would come from just a "couple of backpacks".
One of the biggest things that strikes me...I remember how lonely I felt when I entered foster care. I remember thinking that I was the only kid who was abused...and the only kid to be removed from their home. What strikes me daily is the amount of support from the community I have received from day 1. So many people coming forward to help abused and neglected kids. Many of these people went on to become integral parts of the organization and it's become a "we" effort. It made me realize that while I may have felt alone, people would have done something had they known. That kids today do not have to feel that loneliness....there are a lot of people that care. I cannot put into words how much this warms my heart. While I didn't realize it then, The Blue Ribbon Project is both a personal journey for me as well as a healing process. The organization has taken on a life of it's own and I never imaged a time I would be open about my abuse...let alone in front of people talking about it.