By Helen Mitternight
When the situation at home gets bad enough that the state steps in, it’s really bad. Parents are often abusive, addicted or absent and the need to get children and youths out of that situation is dire. Unfortunately, that can preclude a stop back at home to pack up beloved toys or favorite jeans.
That’s where Lowcountry Orphan Relief plays a role.
Founded in 2003, LOR became an independent nonprofit in 2006 and works to give these children something of their own to keep through what could be several placements (the word officials use for what is in essence being put into foster homes or group homes that are safer than where they’ve been). Lowcountry Orphan Relief provides care kits with at least two weeks’ worth of clothing and toiletries as well as comfort items such as books and stuffed animals.
The kits are meant to last until the kids grow out of the clothes or seasons change; they can receive kits up to four times a year.
“I really feel very strongly that these kids are in a situation where, through no fault of their own, they’re in this system where it’s almost like they’re set up not to have success,” says Meagan Labriola, LOR’s executive director. “The incarceration rate is 40%; teenage pregnancy is 40%. I want to be a part of helping them succeed and [having] all the opportunities and resources any other child would have. It’s just not fair that based on where they were born or how they were born, they don’t have access to the same resources.”
Meagan says the group’s large distribution center in North Charleston “looks like a small T.J. Maxx” with its stacks of gently used clothing. She emphasizes that the group keeps “only the best” because the kids deserve that – this isn’t the place to dump your grease-stained T-shirt.
“We have an awesome donor who donates big laundry bags,” Meagan says. “They are really durable and they last forever. We needed something big because we give them a lot of stuff, and we also attach a backpack full of school supplies.”
Lowcountry Orphan Relief can outfit babies, children and young adults up to 21 years old, and Meagan says they get an average of 20 to 50 referrals a day from caseworkers. Last year, the group gave out almost 4,000 kits and, since 2006, has distributed almost 30,000 kits.
Clothing also goes to “Just in Case Closets” at Title 1 schools where adults can grab an extra outfit for a student who has an accident or who seems to come to school every day in the same clothes.
In addition to distributing care kits, Lowcountry Orphan Relief hosts two large children’s events each year. One is a beach day at Folly Beach.
“We have all kinds of food and surf lessons, boogie boards and sand toys, a whole area for babies, lifeguards,” Meagan says. “We get 130 kids participating. A lot of the kids who come have never been to the beach. They have a blast. And then in November, we have a carnival on our property with rides and magicians and dance performances and a jumpy castle. About 150 kids come to that.”
It’s not all jump castles and games, though. Lowcountry Orphan Relief also hosts YEP, a summer youth empowerment program at Trident Technical College’s Palmer Campus for teenagers 14 and older. YEP offers workshops and mentoring on skills of independent living, job skills and college readiness. The program includes a scholarship to Trident Tech Teen University program for a week, a key component in exposing these young people to the idea of college.
“The outcomes for kids who age out of foster care is bad for employment, bad for high school graduation,” Meagan says. “College is almost not on the radar at all.”
YEP, which is fairly new, served 70 last year, and Meagan says the program is going to be much bigger this year and continue year-round.
Meagan says Lowcountry Orphan Relief draws volunteers who want to stay once they see what the group is doing. The care kits are about so much more than clothing.
“You’re hoping that you’re providing them with some sort of security and comfort,” Meagan says. “You’re packing a bag of hope.”
How you can help
If you want to volunteer or make a donation of money or clothing, visit the website at www.lowcountryorphanrelief.org.
Meagan encourages donors to take the time to pre-sort their clothing donations. “We’re not in the business of giving these kids anything faded or dirty or with holes,” she says.