A single toothbrush and one tattered towel shared among five siblings.
It’s a painful memory recalled by New Suffolk resident Regina Calcaterra, who grew up in and out of foster homes and homeless shelters on Long Island.
Little was guaranteed; their main focus on a wintry day would be finding a place to stay warm or a bite to eat. In some ways, that was the easy part, the New Suffolk resident explained Tuesday. Toiletries and comfort items were always more difficult to come by.
“Not being able to take care of your hygiene or look good on the outside affects your self esteem,” Ms. Calcaterra said.
Though she has defied the odds and since gone on to a successful career in law and government, the New York Times bestselling author remains a fierce advocate for children and teens in the system.
It’s part of the reason she once again teamed up with Maryann Case Birmingham of Case’s Place restaurant in New Suffolk for the second “Case’s for Cases” event to benefit young people in homeless shelters and foster care.
Ms. Calcaterra said she wanted to focus specifically on older children navigating these systems, since they are often the most neglected group.
“The older we grew up in the system, the less likely people were willing to or even thinking about giving something to us,” she recalled of her own experience.
Last month, together with volunteers from Kait’s Angels, the donation drive collected over $10,000 in donated items including blankets, pillows, soap, shampoo and conditioner, nail polish, headphones, winter hats, gloves and scarves, clothing and other holiday gifts.
The items will now be distributed to over 600 children by Birthday Wishes Long Island, an organization that helps children living in the foster care system celebrate their birthday.
Ms. Calcaterra joined Ms. Birmingham, Birthday Wishes Long Island director Jamie Rapfogel and a group of volunteers at their Hicksville headquarters Tuesday to pack the items into backpacks and duffel bags that will also be distributed to the children.
Collecting the bags was another aim of the donation drive in an effort to do away with plastic garbage bags that children often carry their possessions in as they’re shuffled around.
Ms. Birmingham said she was inspired to start the event after meeting Ms. Calcaterra and reading her book, “Etched in Sand.”
“I grew up in a neighborhood where a woman up the road took in foster children, but until I read [Ms. Calcaterra’s] book, I didn’t realize how desperate these kids were, or their plight going from place to place with a garbage bag,” she said.
The organizers were also joined by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who thanked them for their work and spoke about the increased stress on the county’s human services departments because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr. Bellone said from the beginning, county officials knew the health crisis would have ripple effects on the economy and human services.
“Every challenge that exists in our community has been exacerbated by COVID-19,” the county executive said, from mental health and addiction to domestic violence and poverty. “We have seen individuals and families in crisis and seen those challenges only get worse and more significant because of the pressures, because of the strain caused by [the pandemic].”
He said organizations and agencies like Birthday Wishes Long Island work every day to support the most vulnerable populations.
“Kids who are in the most difficult and challenging and heartbreaking of circumstances … to be giving them a little bit of love and light in a dark situation. That’s what Birthday Wishes Long Island does and particularly in this pandemic, they need as much support as they can get in carrying out that mission,” Mr. Bellone said, adding that the Case’s for Cases event makes it possible for the kids to carry their items with “a sense of pride” and dignity.
Ms. Rapfogel said she’s blown away by all of the support. She typically works with 85 shelters from eastern Suffolk all the way to Nassau County to provide birthday parties for children living in shelters. “We help children by celebrating their birthday and reminding them that the day that they were born is special,” she said. “It’s a very simple concept but it is really important. Many of them have never had a birthday party, they’ve never blown out candles on a cake and honestly the feeling that they’re important, that they matter, that people care about them on Long Island really helps.”
In light of the pandemic, Ms. Calcaterra said they decided to collect items that would make their rooms more comfortable after many months of restrictions and quarantine and potentially more to come.
“We’re all having a difficult time, but they’re having the most challenging time,” Ms. Calcaterra said.
For more information or to make a donation, visit longisland.birthdaywishes.org.