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Saturday, November 11th, 2017

Student gives foster kids warm feelings

By William Kincaid

Julianna Lee, a Celina Middle School eighth-grader, shows the "Belong Project" b. . .

CELINA - Celina Middle School eighth-grader Julianna Lee has a special place in her heart for foster children.
Lee, an adopted child, recently visited Mercer County Job and Family Services to find out how she could personally make a difference in the lives of children in the agency's custody. After learning children in custody are given a garbage bag to collect their belongings when moving to a new residence, Lee came up with an idea to offer the kids a more pleasant and comforting receptacle.
"When kids go home to home in foster care they carry their belongings in a trash bag," she said. "It was really sad to hear that because these kids are worth more than trash bags."
JFS Director Angela Nickell said that large garbage bags were used by the agency because they're practical and economical. The agency, which faces exorbitant child-placement-related costs, spends the initial $300 allowance per child on new clothes rather than packaging, Nickell said.
"I have seen the social workers use totes and such for small loads, but the large plastic garbage bags are often utilized, particularly when the clothing needs laundering," she noted.
Forming a partnership with CALL Ministries and Totally Promotional, Lee set out to produce duffle bags to give to foster children. CALL purchased the bags.
"The board loved her, her enthusiasm, passion and energy," CALL Ministries Executive Director Tim Clutter told the newspaper. "We decided to help her get this project started."
That's when Totally Promotional of Coldwater jumped onboard, offering up its creative writing team and art department to assist Lee in creating a logo. The company also offered a discount on the bags once they were produced, Clutter pointed out.
The final product is a navy duffle bag, emblazoned with the word "Belong" and a Bible teaching that reads, "Be strong and courageous wherever you go."
Clutter and Lee presented to the bags to jobs and family services personnel this week.
Nickell said Lee's project is a kind gesture. The duffle bags, she added, will be well received.
"I do believe Miss Julianna and (her mom) Diane are correct; the (garbage) bags, while practical, are not personable and may even give the wrong impression of hauling unwanted things about. I honestly never thought of it," Nickell said. She noted that 55 children are in the county's custody in foster homes, kinship care and residential institutions.
Julianna aims to provide similar bags in surrounding counties and beyond. She's still working on the details, chiefly securing the necessary finances.
"Our vision is to take it statewide," Diane Lee said. "I just don't know how we're going to exactly do that."
What Diane Lee really found moving was her daughter's self-effacement, noting that one person suggested that she call it the "Julianna Project." Instead, she opted for "Belong Project."
"That really kind of struck me," Diane Lee said. "While this is her project, her baby, it's not about her, and I think that's what I am most proud of about her."
Julianna said some of her classmates have taken to Belong Project as well.
"A few of my classmates are in the foster care system or they have been adopted," she said. "They thought this is really great idea. Even some of them are starting t o jump on board."
Even though she isn't even in high school yet, Julianna has been a foster care adoption advocate for the last few years. She was the runner-up of this summer's 2017 Miss Lake Festival's Outstanding Teen Pageant. Under her platform of "Adoption: The New Normal," she encouraged people to adopt from the foster care system and to erase the stigma that foster kids are bad. Everyone deserves a forever home, she concluded.
"I've kind of always felt that I didn't belong because I'm adopted as well," she said, adding that she wants to community to rally behind foster children in Mercer County.
Born in India, Julianna was later adopted by Diana Lee. She also has two adopted sisters from Guatemala. She hopes one day to return to visit India. She also aspires to study psychology at University of Michigan.
"I really am glad, though, to be here in America and able to take advantage of these great opportunities that we have," she said.
Clutter said CALL Ministries has created an "Belong Project" account to which people can make tax-deductible donations. All proceeds will go toward purchasing bags.
"CALL will be helping to promote this ministry through speaking engagements, social media, etc," Clutter said. "Any organization interested in hearing about this new ministry should contact me to make arrangements."
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