Bay County teen creates ‘Empower Packs’ to ease transitions for teens in foster care

For Grace Wrzesinski, helping children in the foster care system is a passion that started with a dance routine. Now, years later, that performance has blossomed into a full-fledged mission called Project In the Stars which aims to provide essentials to local teens in the foster care system.

Wrzesinski, 16, is a junior at John Glenn High School in Bay City. Her awareness of the needs surrounding foster care children began in elementary school, where she carried out her first drive for toys that she later donated to Wellspring Lutheran Services. Since then, the depth of her empathy has only grown through real life experiences.

In 2019, Grace Wrzesinski started collecting personal hygiene supplies for teens in foster care. (Photo Courtesy of Photography by Melissa Martin)“I started it (Project In the Stars) when my aunt told me that she was going to start foster care training. We actually did a dance at Shining Star Dance Academy, and I was the foster child in the dance. It inspired me. There were written words in the dance, like statistics. After researching the real information, I could see we needed a change,” Wrzesinski says.

Add to that the experience of seeing her aunt and uncle, Jeanna and Jeremy Peglow, take in two young foster children, brothers Eddie and David who they later adopted, and you had a young woman who was on a mission to make a difference.

Seven years ago, the Peglows had just one son, Jace, but wanted to expand their family; it just wasn’t happening naturally. Having grown up with parents who took in many foster children and eventually adopted five, Jeanna was no stranger to how foster care and adoption worked.

“I always thought in the back of my mind that part of me wanted to be a foster parent. My husband and I decided to go for it after many discussions back and forth, and ended up with two of the greatest children ever. But I never realized that it would affect Grace in the way that it did. It warms my heart that I had a piece of shaping her into what I would describe as a very giving, wonderful person,” Jeanna Peglow says.

Being quite close to her aunt, Wrzesinski and her younger sister, Alayna, saw firsthand what it was like to be dropped off at a new foster home when the boys, then 6 and 5 years old, arrived at the Peglows’ home one evening.

Wrzesinski, at left, and Maya Linkowski, a Bay City Central High School senior, pose with some of the supplies they collected for the hygiene bags. (Photo courtesy of Grace Wrzesinski)Peglow adds, “Grace came ahead of time and set up their room before they came and was there for some of the initial introductions, so she saw all of that. In my own experience, my kids came that night with the clothes they had on their back, and that’s it. And they were clothes that didn’t even fit.”

Watching the boys arrive with next-to-nothing led Wrzesinski to the realization that many young people were coming to new homes without personal care items and were forced to ask strangers for a variety of necessities right off the bat or simply go without.

Peglow says, “How uncomfortable to say to someone you just met, ‘I need personal hygiene items.’ Those kinds of things really affected Grace. She thought, how can I make a change? And this was all her and her friends. It has snowballed into this huge thing.”

Grace Wrzesinski shops for toothpaste to fill hundreds of bags for teens in foster care. (Photo courtesy of Grace Wrzesinski)This set into motion her first drive in December of 2019 to provide bags of items to teens in foster care. Initially, Wrzesinski’s goal was a modest 20 bags.

“I talked to my mom, and we had the idea of doing 10 bags for girls and 10 for boys. We posted to Facebook asking for help. It went everywhere. We even got a grant from the Gleaner Foundation and donations from businesses and companies. We ended up making up around 156 bags,” Wrzesinski says.

Wrzesinski and her friend and co-founder, Maya Linkowski, got to work filling the “Empower Packs” with a variety of items, including deodorant, brushes, toothpaste and a toothbrush, razors, shaving cream, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and other personal hygiene items.

The original batch of bags from Project In the Stars was donated to the Foster Closet of Michigan in Bay County.

Wrezesinski and a team of teens shop and accept donations to fill hundreds of bags with soap, shampoo, toothpaste, and other essentials. (Photo courtesy of Grace Wrzesinski)However, those original 156 bags have run out, and Wrzesinski is determined to re-stock the supply this fall. Beginning in August, she began busily collecting donations, shopping for items, and packing bookbags, alongside Linkowski and project member Lauren Gallagher.

This time around, the Empower Packs will be delivered to Probate Court Judge Jan Miner at the courthouse, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and local social workers for distribution to teens throughout the county.

Originally, Wrzesinski hoped to collect enough supplies for about 20 bags. She ended up making 156 bags. (Photo courtesy of Grace Wrzesinski)A challenge this time around has been higher prices and product availability. Two hundred backpacks were ordered, as well as notebooks and pens. Most of the personal care items have been purchased. The one item that remains only partially fulfilled is feminine hygiene products, which Wrzesinksi says have jumped up substantially in price.

In August, the In The Stars team started gathering supplies to make another round of bags for teens in foster care. Rising prices and product shortages have been a problem, but they've already collected much of what they need. (Photo courtesy of Gra “We may need to do a drive for these products, and we are still waiting on a final donation to come in that will help,” Wrzesinski says. “My dance team helped me so much last time, and this time my Thespian Troupe 7586 is helping. They have all been a big part of this.”

Those looking to help are welcome to do so through donations or through other types of support

Wrzesinski explains, “We have an Instagram, a Facebook page, and a website. We also have a Google Form for inspirational quotes that go in the backpacks. We are always looking for community outreach and partners.”

Wrzesinski can be reached through any of the social media pages if you are wanting to assist financially or are looking to get involved, or you can send a text message to Jodi Wrzesinski at (989) 737-3728.

“When I think about what Grace is doing, it makes my heart beam and makes me a little misty,” Peglow says. “It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t really get advertised, the need for these items. If you have the capacity to help or to become a foster parent, we are in need, especially for older children.”