Domestic violence tends to increase on hot, sultry days, and it was on such a day that Pat Bloebaum’s daughter and two grandsons had to seek help at a local shelter. When they arrived, the shelter was full and had no clean sheets or towels.
Because Bloebaum, a member of Lakewood Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, Fla., was close by, she was able to move her daughter to a hotel. But she kept thinking about those who didn’t have such familial or financial resources. She was particularly concerned about the children, many of whom have only the clothes on their backs.
“I just kept thinking about all the children who go there who must be so frightened, not knowing what’s happening or what the future will bring,” she said. “I just thought maybe a bag full of basic comfort needs would help ease the plight.”
In late 2007, she approached her pastor about starting a group to make welcome bags. In January 2008, 12 volunteers met to get organized.
“Some had never participated in any other church outreach activity,” Bloebaum said, adding that a few had been church members for years.
And so the Bag Ladies of Lakewood Presbyterian Church came into being. Now with about 25 members — male and female — the group celebrates its fifth anniversary this year. Members come from Lakewood as well as other local churches.
As of December 2012, the Bag Ladies have delivered bags to 2,580 children.
Sewn by group members, the bags are brightly colored drawstring bags that can also be used as backpacks. Each bag is stuffed with small toiletry items, a towel and washcloth, crayons, coloring book, a children’s book, a small snack, a cuddle pillow (made by the non-sewers in the group) and a flashlight.
“When my daughter took her boys to the shelter that night, my youngest grandson was 4 years old. He had a little lantern that was battery operated, and it made a little chirping cricket sound and he kept it on all night for comfort,” Bloebaum said. “So we get mini flashlights to give them comfort at night when it’s dark in a strange place. The bags we make are to help bring a little light into a really dark situation.”
The Bag Ladies involves so many more people than the 25 who gather once a month to assemble the bags. Many of the items in the bags are donated by church members, local businesses and neighbors and friends. Others in the community make financial donations.
“It’s enough to keep us going (and) buy the supplies we need,” Bloebaum said, adding that the Bag Ladies is independent enough to no longer be included in Lakewood’s mission budget, leaving the church more money to spend on other ministries. “We’ve just really been blessed. Average cost per bag is $5 or $6. $5 or $6 is not a lot of money to make a big change in a kid’s life.”
In addition to her group, Bloebaum said other groups have formed in the area, some making bags for other area shelters. As the story of the Bag Ladies continues to spread, Bloebaum hopes other churches will pick up the idea and form groups of their own across the country. She’s provided full instructions on the Bag Ladies website for how to start a group and is always happy to answer questions.
Although it was her family’s negative experience that sparked the idea for the Bag Ladies, Bloebaum stressed that the group wouldn’t be successful without its volunteers.
“This was a terrible experience for our family when it happened, but when I think of all the good that has come out of it, it reminds me that most bad situations eventually can be turned into good if you just think of a way to twist the meaning of what’s happened,” Bloebaum said.
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, NC, where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.