- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2003

More than 28,000 foster children have received the note, a duffel bag and the cuddly friend.

“I want you to always know that you are loved, especially by me,” the letter says. “And always remember to be positive, polite and never give up. Love Your Friend, Makenzie.”

The sender is 13-year-old Makenzie Snyder, who has been sending duffel bags and stuffed animals to foster children since she was 7. Her mission: to cheer up neglected children who often are shuttled between temporary homes.

“I like to cheer up foster kids who have no real family,” the girl from Bowie said. “They are important, but no one cares for them. They are mostly forgotten.”

Makenzie recently won a national award from the Caring Institute, which was founded in 1985 to honor and promote public service. Other award recipients this year were Rep. Tom Osborne, Nebraska Republican, and retired Vice Adm. William Lawrence, a former superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy.

For Makenzie, the idea to help foster children came to her when she was 7. She and her two older brothers had won an essay contest on the topic “How to Change the World.” Makenzie had been working with her brothers to raise money for firefighters since she was 4.

The prize was a trip to Paris to take part in the World Children’s Summit. There, Makenzie met two children who had been wards of the state. She soon learned that many foster children end up with nothing but a garbage bag to carry their belongings to temporary homes.

So she decided to collect duffel bags to send through social workers.

“Then I thought about how I love to cuddle with a stuffed animal when I’m sad or lonely or missing my family, if they went away on a trip,” Makenzie said in a recent interview in her backyard office, which is filled with thousands of stuffed animals.

She called her project Children to Children and started out shopping at yard sales throughout Maryland for the items she needed. But that took time.

It wasn’t long before the Freddie Mac Foundation heard about Makenzie.

Makenzie soon found herself sitting at a large conference table with Freddie Mac officials, answering questions about her project. They liked it. They gave her $15,000. The Washington Council of Governments kept the books for her and helped coordinate with regional foster care agencies.

Shawn Flaherty, a spokeswoman for Freddie Mac who recalled meeting Makenzie when she came to the office in 1999, described her as “very poised for someone so little.”

“She’s just a neat girl who is beyond her years in terms of being able to see a problem and start addressing it,” Miss Flaherty said.

Since then, Makenzie has raised about $50,000 in contributions. Makenzie also has collected thousands of duffel bags and stuffed animals from donors, including talk-show hosts Rosie O’Donnell and Oprah Winfrey.

Home Depot and Southern Management Companies built her backyard office. That’s where she stores a large zoo of stuffed animals and prepares the bags, sometimes with the help of friends and family who take an assembly-line approach.

Makenzie estimates that she has reached about 28,000 children in six years. There are about 530,000 foster children in the United States.

Makenzie occasionally runs into supply lulls. Although she usually has plenty of stuffed animals, Makenzie said her supply of duffel bags has ebbed recently. When she received her Caring Institute award, a donor gave her $5,000. At $10 a bag, that will bring her supply to 500 — a nice boost.

“But it would be really cool if someone would match that, so I could get 500 more,” she said.

Ginny Grunley, a court appointed special advocate for foster children in Montgomery County, said Makenzie has excelled at a project that is desperately needed.

“A lot of times these kids don’t have anything new to their name so it really makes them feel good,” said Miss Grunley, who recalled how a bag brightened the day of an 11-year-old boy.

Makenzie doesn’t get to meet the children because of confidentiality rules. Still, she said her project makes her feel good that she’s helping others.

“I actually want to do it forever, until I help all the 530,000 foster care children in the whole United States,” Makenzie said.


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