Child Abuse Prevention Month: Exchange Club aims to raise funds for bags for children in foster care

Published 2:40 pm Wednesday, April 27, 2022

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month.

Sara Barnes is a member of the Exchange Club of Albert Lea, whose project has been child abuse prevention since 1979. The service club has been around the area for at least 25 years with the goal of helping families prevent child abuse.

Sara Barnes

This year the Exchange Club completed 24 bags to give out to children in the foster care program who were displaced due to many reasons. 

They do that by supporting the Owatonna Center for Family Unity, which in turn reaches out to five counties: Dodge, Freeborn, Rice, Steele and Waseca counties.

“We team up with local [business] Thirty-One bags — it’s like a home-based sales — and … Emily Honsey here in town teams up with us and she actually sells the bags with everything in them,” Barnes said. “So people can donate $25 and then she does the whole bag for you, puts the whole bag together.”

Inside the bags are toys, a blanket, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a stuffed animal, a coloring book and other donated items for children to call their own. Last year, the Exchange Club gave the foster care program 40 bags at the end of April, which were distributed throughout the year.

Bags are put together by community donations and donations from the local club, which are donated to the foster care program at the Freeborn County Department of Human Services.

The Exchange Club is a nationwide organization, but different chapters do different things to support Child Abuse Prevention Month. Within the National Exchange Club are child and parent centers (centers for family unity). Below them are the local exchange clubs such as the Albert Lea Exchange Club.

“It’s important for these kids [who] are displaced [for] whatever reason, that they have something to call their own,” Barnes said. “They’re being pulled out of their homes and put into a home that they don’t know anybody, and it’s just important for them to just have a few things that are just theirs, not thrown into a garbage bag and sent with them.”     

It’s not just children Child Abuse Prevention Month aims to help.

According to Jean Hagenson, a foster care licensor for Freeborn County Department of Human Services, there are roughly 56 licensed homes in Freeborn County and include relatives, non-relatives and people still in the application process. There are also about 50 children in foster placements

“When the kids go into placement  — it’s all depending on need — there’s a certain allowance they get for money for a child, and that doesn’t always cover everything,” she said. “So it’s nice to be able to give these little bags so that they know for sure they have toothbrushes, toothpaste, maybe a comb and a brush. They have a little journal maybe.

“The things that are in the bag are really helpful.”  

“We want to help families be able to stay together,” said Heather Rieken, parent mentor coordinator for the Exchange Club Center for Family Unity in Owatonna, which is the only child and parent center in Minnesota. “That’s our main goal.”

According to Rieken, 95% of the families the Exchange Club Center for Family Unity works with have a mental health concern.

Programs at the center include supervised visitation, a safe exchange program to drop children off, a parent mentoring program and a new education aspect that will include parent support groups.

Recently, the Exchange Club Center for Family Unity Owatonna started a Darkness to Light program designed to help parents learn about sexual abuse that happened in children.

“So many parents don’t understand and don’t know how to handle that,” Rieken said.   

If you would like to donate to the Exchange Club of Albert Lea, you can contact the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce, email heather@centerforfamilyunitymn.com or reach out to their Facebook page.

The goal was to get as many bags, $25/each, as possible.

“If they want to donate a bag it’s basically $25 and then we fill the bag with things and then we hand them over to the foster care program to hand out throughout the whole year,” Barnes said.

If you suspect a child you know has a mental health problem, see a doctor. There is also a mental health center and children’s case management at the Freeborn County Mental Health Center.