by Barbara Castleton
Jennifer Cooper came into Landmark’s Self-Expression and Leadership Program with a commitment to service. In the course of the first weeks of the training, she sorted and considered a variety of ideas for her own project before she had sifted out a couple of core issues. One, Ms. Cooper wanted a project that would welcome children of all ages as participants. Jennifer’s daughter, now seven, was often excluded from available community service projects due to age, and Jennifer wanted to add service experience to all the other important values taught in a caring home. Second, as a woman devoted to making a difference in a variety of sectors, Jennifer resolved to create a project that was expansive and flexible.
“Love is in the Bag” has evolved as a support program that can be used by many different groups to benefit members or others in need. Based on the use of a sturdy tote bag colorfully silk-screened with the “Love is in the Bag” motto, volunteers and donators first purchase the bag at cost, and then fill it according to the requirements of each separate project. “Love” bags can be filled with anything. The bag system distinguishes itself because it can become a form of active giving. The person making the donation buys the bag and then goes out to shop according to the list. The shopping list and the act of buying help givers understand the acute scarcity experienced by other people in their community.
The first project Jennifer spearheaded with “Love is in the Bag” totes benefited the UMom (United Methodist Outreach Ministries) Homeless Shelter in Phoenix, Arizona, a half-century-old organization that has trebled the number of families it serves in just the last five years. In addition to providing housing for local families, UMom has long reached out to homeless veterans and their families. Partnering with UMom, “Love is in the Bag” created bags with the added word “Welcome” and asked donators to fill the bags with about $25 worth of essentials from among a list that included: socks, underwear, tooth brush, paste, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, color books and crayons, razors, deodorant, hair ties, plus brushes and combs.
When the New Heights Church collaborated with “Love is in the Bag” to give away bags to bottom-tier income children and moms in their area, Jennifer was able to witness how important this service delivery system can be. The New Height’s team bought and shopped for 110 children’s bags and another 30 for moms. The children were overjoyed with the surprises contained in the bag, smiles wreathing their faces even before they knew what was inside. One little boy, when asked what he would do with the bag, shared that “I am gonna put it under the tree.” When asked why, he said that the bag was probably the only Christmas he would have so it needed to go under the tree until Christmas Day.
During September’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, Phoenix Children’s Hospital became another recipient of the expansive feature of “Love is in the Bag”. The hospital has a Caring Cart meant to be filled with items that the parents and siblings of young patients might need. After all, a mom and dad frantically whisking a stricken child off to the hospital are unlikely to take the time necessary to gather travel essentials. So the Caring Cart is meant source those items for the families. Unfortunately, the cart has been barren of late, yielding few of the items people caught unawares in a medical drama might need. To the rescue came a nearby fitness club which donated and filled 110 bags for patients’ families. The Caring Cart is now overflowing with thoughtful articles such as neck pillows, coloring books and crayons, toiletries, razors, headache remedies, notebooks and pens, all contained in handy totes.
Currently, “Love is in the Bag” is partnering with bags of a different type – bags filled with coffee! Keweenaw Coffee Works, a sustainable roaster out of Calumet, Michigan, has chosen “Love is in the Bag” as their “Love” partner for February, donating $5 from the sale of every bag of their special edition sweet Nicaraguan blend on behalf of homeless vets. Coffee lovers can make their purchase through Keweenaw’s website.
Jennifer, as she observes the transformational effects of “Love is in the Bag”, 1000 bags to date, reports candidly the “secret” behind it all. “Anything is possible if you ask.” Before the Self-Expression and Leadership Program, she admits to being afraid to ask, but now, the direction is clear. “If we go into a conversation with that they are going to say “Yes!” then the conversation goes entirely differently. If people understood the importance of language then we could get a lot more done.”