Generosity within the community is often a quiet yet tenacious effort, starting from an inspired idea and growing into a force for good. One such group is Packs of Hope, founded in 2008 by Michelle Smithling, a foster mother who recognized that children transitioning into the foster care system often lacked even the most basic of necessities during an already tumultuous journey. She saw firsthand just how difficult the experience can be for a child arriving at a home with nothing but the clothes on their backs. With the help of caseworkers, Packs of Hope became a reality.
Smithling’s dream was to provide a ready-made backpack filled with a new set of clothes, so children wouldn’t have to show up at the foster home with only what they were wearing, carrying a trash bag of dirty laundry. Also included would be toiletries such as a toothbrush and toothpaste, and items for comfort, also often in too short supply, such as a stuffed animal, toy or a book.
What started in Jefferson County and just 18 pre-filled backpacks, now serves 9 counties in 13 locations: Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, El Paso, Gilpin, Jefferson and Weld, delivering more than 400 backpacks each month. And it’s done at no cost to the county or the child, relying on 100% volunteers, donations and the community to fill the monthly orders.
“We have been serving foster children along the Front Range for 15 years. Our mission has been to bring hope, joy, and dignity to children who feel unseen and are going through one of the hardest times in their lives. I love that Packs of Hope uses new clothing in the backpacks. We want to give these sweet children and youth our best, not just leftovers, to show them that they’re seen, and cared for, and their lives are important,” said Amanda Beck, Executive, Packs of Hope. “Our hope is to bring comfort and joy to children during a very difficult time in their lives.”
The backpacks are prepared for children ages newborn through age 18. “These are meant to help the children but also provide help to the foster family as well,” said Beck. “Each [backpack] is filled with new clothing and toiletries that include a shirt, pants, a sweatshirt or jacket, pajamas, socks, underwear, age-appropriate toiletries, and a comfort item such as a stuffed animal. “We also provide diapers, wipes, and pull-ups. For the older children, we provide a small stress-relieving gift in their backpacks like adult coloring books or fidget spinners. We also place a feminine pack in our teen girl backpacks,” she explained.
Here's how it works: Each county keeps a storage room filled with the prepared backpacks at its Human Services Building, with at least two for each size and gender on hand at all times. Caseworkers retrieve a child’s size when the need arises. Each month, the group replenishes the stock.
Since its founding, approximately 28,000 backpacks have been handed out, made by more than 1,500 volunteers who have worked more than 100,000 hours combined. Beck began as a volunteer in 2017. “I immediately fell in love with the mission and the people at Packs of Hope.” When Smithling approached her about taking over as Executive Director, Beck said, “I was excited to take on this new adventure. This volunteer position was not just mine, but my entire family: my husband, three kids, even my parents.”
Packs of Hope has grown its engagement to keep up with demand. “We partnered with the City of Arvada in June of 2022 to offer court-ordered community service to youth an opportunity … and provide mentors who work alongside each youth. Our goal is to not only have them complete their hours but to also be a listening ear and offer any helpful advice on the struggles that they're facing … sometimes all they need is someone to hear them and offer them kindness.” The program has worked with 122 youth so far, she said. They’ve also partnered with Arvada High School’s Jeffco Transitional Services students who receive on-the-job training.
Volunteers of all ages and donations are the fuel that keeps Pack of Hope delivering on its promise. “We’re so grateful to partner with many companies, groups, churches, schools and organizations around our community,” said Beck. “Donation drives from businesses and organizations along with donations from individuals are how we survive,” Beck said. To learn more, volunteer or donate, visit www.packsofhope.org.