Island seniors' suitcase project helps empower recipients

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Anna Borelli, left and Liana Hutton with the two dozen suitcase they collected, cleaned, filled and donated to CAPA's Open Arms Children's Home. SUBMITTED

For students in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (IBDP), senior year is chock full of special projects, community service, long essays and learning independently outside the classroom.

One requirement is completion of a community service project at least one month in the making and executing.

Inspired by a video they saw on Facebook, seniors Liana Hutton and Anna Borelli, classmates at Hilton Head Island High School, decided on a project that would help some special kids their age - kids who are in the state's foster care system.

The girls learned that for children in foster care, much of life is uncertain: Where is home? How long will I be in this place? Where will I go next?

"They sometimes have to move from place to place," Liana said. "And normally they take their stuff in trash bags."

The girls thought it might help those teens to have their own suitcase, something a little more dignified in which they could keep their personal belongings.

Liana and Anna started collecting suitcases. They wanted to personalize them for kids their own age.

"We posted on a Facebook ask-and-answer page to ask if anyone had suitcases they'd like to donate," Liana said. The girls collected 24 gently used suitcases.

But they didn't want to just give used suitcases to a service agency. They cleaned them thoroughly, then made and attached luggage tags on which the new owners could write their name.

But they didn't stop there.

They considered various possible situations and came up with a list of items to include inside, based on gender. They accepted donations and also purchased fuzzy blankets, socks, deodorant, toothbrushes and such to go inside the luggage.

Also in each suitcase is a framed inspirational and encouraging quote. "Originally, we were going to give empty frames, but then we realized they maybe don't have any photos to put in frames," Anna said.

Instead, they decided to write out inspirational quotes they found online, Liana said. "For example, 'Paint the future you want to see' and 'Be a voice, not an echo.'"

They found the perfect place to donate the collected suitcases, Liana said, through her mother, Carolee Hutton, "who volunteers for everything."

Carolee had asked a director at the Child Abuse Prevention Association if her daughter could do a project for teen clients at their Open Arms Children's Home.

Emma Roddey, volunteer coordinator for the organization, said she received an email from Liana in October 2018 letting her know that the girls had collected the suitcases, and asking for advice on suitable contents.

"I was thrilled at her excitement after I spoke with her on the phone," Roddey said. "I gave them some suggestions, but they really took control of the project and made it their own."

As children leave the care of CAPA, Roddey said, they are always given a suitable duffel bag or suitcase, and now, "because of these ladies' kindness, we do not have to purchase them for our children for quite some time."

As Liana and Anna walk across the stage to receive their high school diplomas tomorrow, June 6, they do so knowing they have helped other teens in uncertain situations.

"It means more than anyone can ever imagine for these children to know that there are people in the world that think of them often and the hardships that they are living," Roddey said.

"For these children to have arrived at our home with little that they own, and to leave with such a special gift that is all theirs is so empowering," Roddey said. "It gives them strength to move onto the next chapter with a straighter back and a stronger step."

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