A kind gesture is making a difference in the lives of Walker County children who may be going through one of the most difficult times of their lives.
Nonprofit Youth Advocate Programs (YAP) of Jasper started distributing "love packs" two weeks ago to elementary, middle and high school students in Walker County identified to have lost a loved one. The children receive a backpack or a tote bag filled with items that may provide comfort and a distraction from the emotional trauma of loss, such as a coloring book, sketch pad, blanket, small toys, snacks, etc. The bags also come with an age-appropriate book on coping with loss, as well as some personal hygiene and pampering products.
YAP-Jasper Director Tina Aaron said she came up with the idea of providing love packs to students after learning about a similar program for grieving children that began in another state. It all started with Aaron putting a simple request on Facebook for help with purchasing supplies for the love packs, and many people and organizations have since made donations for the cause or brought in items for the bags.
"All the love packs say is, 'We see you, we see you're hurting, and we love you,'" Aaron said.
Ten love packs have been distributed so far to children at Sumiton, Oakman, Lupton, Valley, and Carbon Hill schools. The bags will be distributed, as needed, to children in both Walker County and Jasper City schools.
Aaron said school officials have said the love packs would also be comforting for children who have lost a home or a parent or guardian through moving, deportation or incarceration.
The first child to receive a love pack was a boy from Sumiton Elementary School, where YAP advocate Anthony Sellers is employed as a behavioral interventionist. The Walker Area Community Foundation funded a healing room at Sumiton Elementary for Sellers, better known as Mr. Ant, to provide support for children dealing with emotional trauma.
Aaron said the boy who received a love pack at the school lost his mother last summer, his father's whereabouts are unknown, and he has been living with his grandparents. Over Christmas break, the boy's grandfather tragically committed suicide, and he acted out upon returning to school. Sellers stepped in to help comfort the boy and provided him with a love pack.
"The next day he came back to school and he saw Anthony in the hallway. He ran up and hugged Anthony and thanked him so much for that backpack," Aaron said, noting it was a moment that made the boy's teacher cry happy tears. "That was the first time he had ever shown good, healthy emotion."
Aaron said so many children in both school systems are dealing with emotional trauma. YAP serves many of those children who are part of the juvenile justice system or in foster care. YAP also provides behavioral intervention strategies in schools to help children who are struggling.
Some of YAP's work involves home visits.
"There are 10,000 kids in both school systems combined, and we're in homes every day that are ... people would think they're in a third world country," she said. "We serve kids who are living in the size of a closet, no bathroom, no kitchen, just a room."
She said some children even live in sheds or a single room with only a mattress.
"Those are the ones who are going to miss school a lot, and they're going to fall behind," Aaron said. "It's a lot, and it's hard to put all that on the school because the school is there to teach. They're not there to be doctors, parents and therapists, but yet, here we are."
YAP has recently helped fill that gap by providing trauma-informed education to teachers at schools, which educates them on proper ways to respond to students who may be going through a difficult time. The nonprofit also helps carry out the Handle with Care program that is designed for law enforcement to notify schools if a child was on the scene when officers were dispatched to a particular location.
The nonprofit provides support when students are considering or have inflicted self-harm. Aaron said cutting continues to be a growing issue that YAP and schools are working to address as well.
YAP has helped incorporate secret pantries at every school in Walker County to provide youth with deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste/toothbrushes, soap, underwear, feminine hygiene items — anything children lack at home. Many schools have expanded their secret pantries to include clothing.
Aaron said, unfortunately, some living conditions in the county continue to worsen, making the needs even greater.
"It's going to continue to increase based on our drug population and all these kids who don't have their parents. They're gone. They're living with their grandparents, aunts, uncles," she said. "We have so many teenagers who are couch surfers. They're living everywhere."
By adding love packs to the array of services provided by YAP, more children who need mental health assistance can be served, including those who don't have a stable home life.
"We don't have to do those things, but I think that's just the community that we have," Aaron said, expressing her gratitude to everyone who supports YAP programs. "We want to make that difference. We want them to know how much they're loved. I think that's what a lot of our kids are missing, that connection. They're missing that support and that advocate for them. ... I think that love pack is simply saying we care about you."
To sponsor a love pack, checks can be mailed to Youth Advocate Programs-Jasper, 349 20th St. W. Jasper, AL 35501-5864. Aaron said $50 can help put together one love pack, and smaller donations can help share the cost. People may also drop off in-kind donations for the love packs at YAP's downtown Jasper office.