CHICAGO (CBS) — The murder of 5-year-old A.J. Freund has united the Crystal Lake community, and one family is creating a unique program to help foster children find a sense of home.
“We were grieving the loss of A.J. and were looking for something positive to do,” Alicia Wehby said.
Wehby found what she was looking for by creating the “Stuff The Duffel” campaign, which is collecting donations of basic necessities to put into duffel bags, backpacks, and small luggage for children transitioning into foster care. She put the idea on Facebook on Sunday.
“We posted and overnight it just exploded. The community has jumped in, and taken it to a whole other level,” she said.
After A.J. was reported missing, his 4-year-old brother was removed from his parents’ home and placed in foster care. Now that A.J.’s parents are charged with his murder, they have agreed to let the state take custody of his younger brother. A court-appointed advocate will meet with the younger boy, submit a report, and determine what is best for him.
Wehby knows the foster system well. She’s a mother of four, including three foster children; all brothers she’s since adopted.
Her family’s home couldn’t fit all the donations, so another family offered up a warehouse, and several local businesses are now serving as drop-off points. The group is collecting items such as reusable watter bottles, school supplies, toiletries, blankets, clothes, toys, and more.
“Instead of just donating money somewhere, I think it’s helping people be able to take their families out and shop for actual items knowing that it’s going to help somebody in need,” Wehby said.
Isaac, her 12-year-old son, is grateful to be out of foster are and with his loving family.
“I’ve been really happy that they adopted us,” he said. “I’m glad that people do adopt kids, because it’s terrible, the position you have to be in; foster home to different foster home, without anything. So donating, then they could have something that is truly theirs.”
His older sister, Ainsley, also is proud to help her mom.
“I think it’s really good idea that she did this, and she’s really helping out a lot of kids, and I know from the experience with my brothers that there’s are bunch of kids out there and they all need help,” she said.
Wehby said setting up the Stuff the Duffel campaign has been amazing.
“It makes you feel like you are making a difference, and that somebody on the receiving end of this, it will impact their life, and hopefully for the better. Hopefully whether their goal is to return home, or they’re finding a new home, hopefully it’ll just be the first step in whatever their next phase is,” she said.
For more information on the Stuff the Duffel group, go to their Facebook page.
Wehby said there are 18,000 children in Illinois waiting to be adopted. If you are thinking about fostering, there is an urgent need.