It’s not hard to imagine how frightened and confused a child feels when entering the foster care system. They’ve been taken away from home and find themselves living with strangers for an indefinite period. They often leave behind toothbrushes, clothing, and favorite toys as well as family and friends.
Since 2018, Rayola,
a nonprofit organization based in Ogemaw County, has been making efforts to make the transition a little easier for kids in 15 counties including Bay.
Keri Withers, who founded Rayola in 2018, says the organization relies on grants, donations, and fundraisers to provide what kids need when they enter foster care. She named the organization after a family friend who helped her when she was pregnant and living far from her hometown.
“We’re on the front end of when a child enters the foster care system,” Withers says.
“We’re a direct help or comfort to the child. They used to have, a long time ago, the Welcome Wagon, which provided little care packages. This is not like the Welcome Wagon, for sure, because there’s no joy in what the child is going through, but the premise is the same in that we’re saying ‘Your community cares about you and wants you to have some comfort.’ “
Rayola provides kids with duffle bags filled with games, small toys, hygiene items, school supplies, books, journals, and more. The kids also receive handmade blankets, quilts, or pillowcases.
Over the years, Rayola has grown. In the beginning, the all-volunteer organization served primarily Ogemaw and Roscommon counties. In 2021, it added eight counites including Bay. Today, it serves kids in foster care in 15 counties.
To date, they have delivered more than 300 duffle bags and 755 quilt care packages to children entering foster care. They also distribute bags to kids throughout the year. For example, they just sent out Valentine’s Day packages to the kids. In the spring, they’ll distribute sidewalk chalk and bubbles. At Halloween, the kids receive books and a bag for treats.
They accomplish all of this with the help of grants as well as donations of supplies, handmade quilts, and cash. Rayola received grants from the Civic League of the Bay County Advisory Endowment Fund, the Women’s Philanthropy Circle Endowment Fund, and the Arenac County Health Improvement Endowment Fund.
On Sat. Feb. 25, the organization is holding a fundraising Euchre Tournament at the Pinconning Community Center,
200 N. Mable St. in Pinconning.
”All of the money that is raised or given or donated goes right to help the kids,” Withers adds. “The workforce is completely volunteer.”
Withers, the mother of six children, decided to not to become a foster parent herself, but she still felt called to help volunteer to help kids in these situations.
“I can quilt and I can raise money and I can provide comfort items for the children who are in foster care because I do care about them,” Withers says.
Rayola relies on volunteers, donations, and fundraisers to provide comfort items to kids in foster care in a 15-county region including Bay County.
The number of kids who need Rayola fluctuates.
“There definitely are times of the year when we seem to be really busy,” Withers says.
When kids return to school in the fall, for example, schools spot problems that sometimes necessitate removing children from their homes. Another spike comes in January when kids return to school from the holiday break.
“It just seems there are different times that are busier,” she says.
The number of young people receiving services changes too. When Rayola moved into Bay County, they gave a bag to each of about 100 kids in foster care. Now, she distributes bags as children enter foster care. They gave out 24 bags in January.
Withers also says Rayola only distributes bags to children who are housed in the counties Rayola serves. For example, if a Bay County child is housed with relatives in Detroit, he or she does not receive a Rayola bag. However, if a child from Detroit is housed in Bay County, he or she does receive a bag.
Withers works with other agencies serving foster families, such as the Foster Families Navigation and Resource Center
in Bay City.
“We have worked together briefly on things,” Withers says.
Families go to the Navigation and Resource Center as children outgrow clothing or need new supplies. Rayola provides what kids need immediately upon entering care.
There are several ways to help Rayola. First, they are still accepting teams for the Euchre Night at the Pinconning Community Center on Sat., Feb. 25. The event is sponsored by the Pinconning and Standish Rotary Clubs. Tickets are $25 and available at CJ’s Sports Grill at 201 N. Mable St. in Pinconning, Bittersweet Quilt Shop at 624 W. Fifth St. in Pinconning, Pinnacle Rehabilitation at 621 Court St. in West Branch, or through Rayola. Tickets also may be available when doors open at 5:30 p.m.
Rayola also accepts donations of finished blankets as well as materials to make blankets.
“We’re open to all kinds of help,” she says. “We were just gifted a building in Ogemaw County and it needs some repairs.”
Withers hopes the building is ready for use in the spring.
“Up until now, my house has been the place where all the supplies are kept,” she says. “(The new building) has a big space for sewing. We’re really excited about being able to host sewing days. It also has rooms for all of the storage.
“The building is this very-needed part of Rayola with the way we’ve expanded,” Withers says, adding that the building may enable her to reach into additional counties.
The need is there, she says.
“There’s such a need for foster families. I think the better we can support the foster families, the more foster families we’ll have. The state of Michigan is short of foster families and the better we can support the children who enter the system, the better we can support foster families, and the quantity of foster families will increase," Withers says. "I think what we do is valuable because it gives the kids something of value to have for themselves. I think there is true value in something being homemade. They are beautiful quilts and pillowcases."
“I’m excited that there are so many organizations in the area that are trying to help support the families.”