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LEOMINSTER, Mass. (AP) — When Tami J. Arguelles was taken by the state from her unsafe, abusive Fitchburg home at age 6 with her then 9-year-old brother, she said she spent the first night at the foster home scared and alone in the dark, unable to even find the bathroom.
Ms. Arguelles, now 42, can still remember vividly that first frightening night and numerous occasions when social workers would arrive at her home to once again remove her and place her into emergency foster care because her parents could not properly care for her and her siblings due to their heavy drug use. Her father, who she said also sexually and physically abused her, was eventually arrested for the abuse. He was convicted and deported back to Greece when she was 12 without the option of returning to the U.S.
"I was in foster care most of my childhood until I was 16," she said. "The first foster home was when I was 6 years old. I was taken in the middle of the night and I couldn't grab anything. It was an extremely scary environment. I remember it being dark and not being able to find the bathroom and having to wait until the morning to find it. I had nothing besides what clothes I had on for the initial first 24 hours."
With four children of her own now, she said she spends every day doing what she can for others and paying it forward as president and executive director of the Fitchburg-based Help For Our Community that she started 15 years ago. The organization working toward nonprofit status helps those in need, including those who are homeless, abused or drug-addicted. It is all volunteers and Ms. Arguelles, a widow since 2003, often pays for supplies out of her own pocket, she said.
Her organization's latest project was putting together supply bags for children placed in emergency foster care for their transition into a foster home.
But it was not her own childhood experiences that fostered the idea.
Ms. Arguelles said she came up with the idea during searches she participated in for Jeremiah Oliver— a young Fitchburg boy whose disappearance went unnoticed by the Department of Children and Families for months. He was last seen alive at 4 years old in September 2013. He was found dead on April 18, 2014; his body stuffed in a suitcase and tossed off the side of the highway in Sterling. His mother Elsa Oliver and her boyfriend, who authorities say brutally beat Ms. Oliver and the Oliver children, face child abuse charges.
Jeremiah's siblings, Romeo and Juliana, were placed in emergency foster care after Juliana told one of her teachers on Dec. 2, 2013, about the abuse and that Jeremiah was missing. The children were not allowed to collect any of their belongings, Ms. Arguelles said.
"I provided rides to the searches for Jeremiah to their father Jose Oliver— that is how I met him," Ms. Arguelles said. "We worked closely with Jose Oliver to help him refocus in his journey, to get his other two children out of DCF's care and get them back. When they were taken, they didn't have anything. They were just taken out of their home and a lot of items the landlord threw away. Someone should have saved some of the children's stuff."
All of the 100 bags she and other volunteers put together to donate to DCF's Leominster office contained flashlights along with other age-appropriate items. She said her group did a lot of research with foster parents, DCF workers and former foster children to decide what would be appropriate to go into the bags.
St. Anna Catholic School in Leominster collected donations for the bags from the community, including mini-flashlights, toothbrushes, toothpaste, books, journals, coloring books, face cloths, throw blankets, water bottles, pencils, pens and other comfort items, Ms. Arguelles said. And every bag, regardless of the child recipient's age, contains a Beanie Baby stuffed animal.
"If somebody said to me, 'Why are we giving the 16- to 18-year olds a Beanie Baby?' I would say I had stuffed animals as a teenager," she said. "They may act all rough and tough, but at the end of the day they are still children. They have a rough exterior because there is a wall you put up to protect yourself. But when the lights are out, you can't hide from yourself. You're just a frightened child who doesn't know what is happening to your parents. You worry about your parents because they're your parents and you still love them."
She said the supplies are intended to give children a sense of security and ownership and allow them an opportunity to find comfort and peace during the chaos.
"Otherwise, it falls on the foster parents," she said. "They can't go out at 2 in the morning to get what they need in an emergency case. If this can alleviate some of the chaos for DCF workers, foster parents and especially the kids, and help their journey, then we surpassed what we had hoped for."
Patrick R. Cochran, 27, of Fitchburg, who is treasurer and business liaison for the organization, said his 8-year-old son Patrick R. Cochran Jr.'s second grade class at St. Anna took on the task of collecting donations. His 13-year-old niece Jaelynn Corbeil from Fitchburg also helped.
"It was a humbling experience and it helped me grow as an individual and give me more insight into what is going on in the community and to see things from others' perspective and have more of an open mind," Mr. Cochran said. "My grandparents did emergency foster care in the 1970s in the house I live in. My whole life I thought an aunt was a 'blood aunt,' but found out she was adopted from foster care. It could be anybody that this happens to. These kids don't ask for that."
The Leominster office has hundreds of cases, he said. It is the organization's goal to donate supply bags annually, he said. They hope to collect enough donations for 200 bags next year.
Karen V. Bean, a former longtime foster parent in Fitchburg and one of Ms. Arguelles' foster mothers, said many of the children came to her late in the evening or in the middle of the night with just a small trash bag of items.
"It's my experience most of the time, that when kids come into foster care, it is not a planned thing," Ms. Bean said. "They come with minimal clothing and almost all the time, no personal items. Most of them aren't placed voluntarily. They are taken under C&Ps (care and protection petitions). They are taken away from home and they don't go back right away or have any visits."
She said the supply bags will give foster children something that is all their own that they can take with them wherever they go.
"It will provide basic needs for the kids immediately," she said. "It takes a while for a social worker to get back into the home to get clothing. It is almost like starting all over again. They come with trash bags. They don't come with suitcases. With emergency placement, you don't have time to do that."
She said it was also a good lesson in compassion and understanding for the children who helped collect the donations.
In a statement, DCF Commissioner Linda Spears said, "We know that coming into foster care can be difficult for our children, and we do everything we can to make the transition a little bit easier. For some children having their own bag with their own supplies makes a huge difference; for others having a stuffed animal to hold gives them a little bit of comfort. We are incredibly grateful to members of the community who provide donations and help make this possible because we want to do everything we can to make sure our children are feeling supported and cared for every step of the way."
Cayenne Isaksen, spokeswoman for DCF, said the agency makes every effort to provide children coming into foster care with basic necessities and items intended to provide them with a sense of comfort, such as stuffed animals, books and games.
"Social workers will try to take some of the child's own belongings whenever possible," she said. "Additionally, DCF staff may also use gift cards that have been donated to purchase something the child may need and foster parents and social workers often work together to determine what needs may still exist."
Many of the bags and supplies are provided by the DCF Kids Fund, she said, but donations also come from members of the community.
Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com
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