Meet the Laotto teen making national connections to help kids in foster care

AnnaBella Brown of Laotto, Ind., has been passionate about youth in foster care for as long as she can remember.

Growing up, she had friends and family who were in the system as foster children or parents, so she saw firsthand the need to support and protect the self-esteem and self-confidence of foster kids.

When she presented at the Miss Indiana & Miss Indiana Outstanding Teen Pageant in June as Miss Northern Lakes Outstanding Teen, she decided to turn her passion into a platform called “Fostering a Majestic You.”

“Imagine having to think things like, ‘Where will my next home be?’ or ‘Where will my next bed be?’” Brown says. “These kids don’t understand what is going on around them, nor did they put themselves in this position to begin with. I want to help foster children be more confident in themselves and help them find that forever home.”

But finding a forever home isn’t the only challenge foster children face. Along their journey through the system, they’re often left feeling undignified by their circumstances. Brown discovered the extent of the issue about a year ago while watching an episode of The Ellen Show.

On the show, she learned that foster kids often carry their personal belongings in trash bags when transitioning to a new home. She watched as Robert Scheer, Founder and CEO of the national non-profit organization, Comfort Cases, explained how this “trash bag” practice is all too common in the foster care system, but very unknown to the public.

As a former foster kid himself, Scheer carried his belongings in a trash bag from home to home. Years later, he became a father to four children all from foster care, who came to his home carrying their belongings in trash bags, too.

It was then that Scheer said, “Enough is enough.”

Brown learned that Scheer founded Comfort Cases to help youth in foster care feel a sense of dignity and self-worth as they make difficult transitions from home-to-home. Comfort Cases provides foster children with backpacks and duffel bags, known as a “comfort case,” filled with new pajamas, blankets, journals, pens, coloring books, crayons and toiletries, and stuffed animals for their new home transition.

When Comfort Cases provides a case to a child in need, they not only offer them new items that they can keep during their journey. They also provide them with dignity and the notation that someone cares about what they are going through.

For Annabella, this is where the light bulb went off, and as a rising sophomore at Canterbury School, she jumped on the opportunity to make a difference.

“This organization was the perfect match, and I wanted to do whatever I could to help bring this to northeast Indiana,” she says. “I think the whole idea behind Comfort Cases really gives a foster child a sense of more—more comfort, more home, and more self-worth. For me, a Comfort Case isn’t just a bag. It creates an opportunity for kids to find a forever home and a sense of belonging.”

Brown, center, is working to bring Comfort Cases to foster care children in northeast Indiana.

Brown realized that northeast Indiana is a prime location for a Comfort Cases project, too. Indiana is home to more than 13,000 of the 450,000 youth in foster care nationwide, and being in foster care often affects a child’s educational attainment.

Only 54 percent of foster children in the system will graduate from high school, 11 percent will apply to college, and 3 percent will receive a college degree.

So she reached out to Comfort Cases to bring comfort and confidence to foster care children in northeast Indiana and beyond.

“I really want to make a difference, to lower statistics, and to support my community,” she says. “Most importantly, I want these kids to have a chance, as every child should.”

Scheer remembers when Brown first reached out to him. While he says that he gets many inquiries from people around the nation, there was something about her passion that connected with him.

“The way she took this platform to educate the public was incredible, and her voice really makes a difference,” Scheer says. “She is the kind of person that is few and far between.”

During the last five years, Comfort Cases has distributed more than 50,000 cases across 50 states accompanied by their mantra “No More Trashbags!”

Last year, Comfort Cases landed in Indiana after a $25,000 corporate sponsorship by Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield helped fund the distribution of cases in the Indianapolis area. Now, Brown and Scheer are working to bring the cases to the northeast corner of the state, too.   

On June 4, Scheer surprised Brown with a visit to Fort Wayne, and the two set out on a day-long quest to educate the Fort Wayne community about Comfort Cases and foster care with presentations and meetings at Canterbury School, WANE-15, The Villages (foster support services agency), and the City of Fort Wayne.

Scheer, the Founder and CEO of Comfort Cases speaks to local students at Canterbury Schools.

For Annabella and Robert, the message was clear: We need to do better to serve our kids in foster care across northeast Indiana—and the country.

“I feel like we have failed them from the moment they walk into a system that they didn’t ask to be put in,” Scheer says. “They are in the system because of choices other people made. We bring them into a system and literally treat them like they are garbage. We treat them like they are invisible. They have no voice.”

Along with eliminating the trash bag, Scheer hopes that Comfort Cases will serve as an ice breaker for a larger conversation surrounding foster care nationwide.

“The one thing we have to realize is that our zip code is not our community,” Scheer says. “The human race is our community. We are all a part of one community. What happens in Indiana, affects a kid in my hometown in Maryland. What happens in New Jersey, affects the people in Indiana. We need to do better.”

What’s next?

With the support of the City of Fort Wayne and Mayor Tom Henry, Comfort Cases is now planning a packing party this fall with the goal of distributing hundreds of Comfort Cases across the region.

For more information on Comfort Cases, visit www.comfortcases.org.

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