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When Rob Scheer opened his door in 2009 to meet his first-ever foster children, he did not expect to be reminded of an old, painful memory that would propel him into philanthropic action.
But the jostled memory was so powerful that it eventually prompted Rob and his husband, Reece, to found a charity that has now helped more than 20,000 foster children.
The Scheers’ charity, Comfort Cases, provides foster children with backpacks filled with comforting supplies to carry with them as they traverse what insiders call “the system.”
The hand-packed bags replace the standard-issue foster child suitcase: A plastic trash bag.
That is what little Amaya and Makai, then ages 4 and 2, respectively, had with them when they arrived at the Scheers’ rural Maryland front door seven years ago. It also is what jostled Rob’s memory of a deeply painful experience.
“The doorbell rang,” says Rob, recalling the day a social worker arrived at his house with the two children. “There stood a little girl in braids, carrying a little boy. The girl didn’t smile. The boy was almost like a wet noodle. And they were carrying all their belongings in trash bags.”
The sight of the bags took Rob’s breath away.
“We put our garbage in trash bags,” Rob tells PEOPLE. “We discard our trash. Why would you treat a child’s meager belongings like trash? A child whose life is crumbling around them? What a horrible thing to do to a child.”
Rob should know. He went through the experience himself.
Growing up in Northern Virginia, Rob was the youngest child of a six-time married mother who had 10 children. He wound up in foster care at age 10. He was shunted from place to place, always toting his belongings inside a foster care-issued “suitcase:” a trash bag.
By age 17, Rob had nowhere to live. By day, he was on the streets. At night, he hid in back of a Manassas, Virginia, taco restaurant, whose employees left an outside bathroom door unlocked for him at night.
“I carried everything I owned in a trash bag,” Rob says.
Driven to succeed in life, Rob graduated from high school, joined the Navy, and went on to a civilian career in the mortgage industry.
Established and secure, Rob and Reece wanted to help other children who are growing up like Rob did. The two applied to become foster parents.
Aya and Makai arrived soon afterwards, clutching their trash bags.
“I looked at those bags and thought, 30 years later, we are still allowing kids to carry trash bags.”
Worse yet, Rob says: “They had nothing but turn and tattered clothes. No baby doll, no toothbrush.”
A few months later, babies Greyson and Tristan arrived.
They, too, had trash bags.
“I was shocked,” Rob says. “This is so unacceptable. It’s one thing that they’re in foster care. It’s another that we are making the choice to give them trash bags.”
Rob and Reece decided to compile some supplies to donate to local foster kids. Working diligently to decide what a child would want and need, the two foster parents filled individual backpacks with soap, toothbrushes, a book, a journal, a blanket and more. A key component for each was pajamas with a tag attached, to show that they were new.
“We did 300 cases,” Reece says. “Then 500. Then it just grew.”
As the Scheers became a forever family – with all the children adopted – the project became a charity, reaching 20,000 Comfort Cases in about three years.
Now, the charity has scores of volunteers, and is a family undertaking.
“We do work stations,” says son Greyson, 9, who came into the family as a baby. “One station has a backpack, and you’ll get a blanket or a book and put all the things or pens or journals they can color in.”
Big sister Amaya, 12, helps the younger kids fill the packs. She also helps make blankets out of fabric. “We sometimes make them by hand, and sometimes by machine,” Amaya says.
The packs make a difference in recipients’ lives.
“When you come to a new home, you know nothing about it,” says Miracle Jones, a teenager who currently is in foster care in Maryland. “You have what they decide to give you.”
Miracle was given a Comfort Case.
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“It felt so good to get it,” Miracle tells PEOPLE. “The case was really cute.” It contained shampoo, conditioner, dental floss, a blanket, a journal, a stuffed sock monkey and more.
“Everything had a deep meaning,” Miracle says. “It’s everything that makes you feel so good. A blanket keeps you warm. A journal is there if you want to write down your thoughts.”
The items were much appreciated – as was the thought.
“It genuinely does make me feel good,” Miracle says. “It feels so good that people are out there doing good in the world.”
The Scheers plan to keep up the good work.
The couple is currently raising money for more Comfort Cases via their GoFundMe page, and is pressing forward with more packs. The goal is to eliminate trash bags from foster childrens’ lives.
Says Rob: “It’s not just the kids in our area who get trash bags. It’s happening in every community. That’s got to stop, and it has to stop now.”