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Kids Deserve Better Than Trash Bags

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The daughter of a social worker learns pretty quickly that the world can be a cruel place for kids.

“My mother is like my best friend. I grew up in her office,” Brianna Swinderman says of the years her mother worked for child protective services and a private foster care agency in Texas. “And I saw things, heard things.”

Brianna met some of the foster kids plucked from violent and neglectful homes, bounced about from place to place until the state decided what to do with them.

Bags of Hope
Drop off new and gently used luggage and duffel bags for foster children at Girl Scout of New Mexico Trails Council, 4000 Jefferson Plaza NE, Albuquerque; Rio Rancho Presbyterian Church, 1004 24th SE, Rio Rancho; or email for pick-up. Also needed are monetary donations, storage space and more community drop-off points. For information:

Some were her age.

She remembers one girl, about 9 or 10, with scars across her arms and abdomen.

“I knew – she knew, too – what had happened to her,” Brianna, 15, said. “It looked like someone took a knife and ripped it up and down.”

What little the foster kids were allowed to take from one home to the next was stuffed in black trash bags, as if their meager possessions were garbage.

That especially bothered Brianna.

“I found that so humiliating,” she said.

But sometimes, the daughter of a social worker learns she can do something that makes that world a little less cruel.

Years later, those black trash bags and those rootless children became the inspiration for her Girl Scout Gold Award project, the highest achievement a Senior Girl Scout can earn. It’s a prestigious honor, one that only a select few attain. The project must benefit the community, be approved by an advisory panel and be sustainable long after the Scout hangs up her badge sash.

Of the more than 5,000 members of the Girl Scouts of New Mexico Trails, eight Scouts were honored Saturday for completing their Gold Award projects, said Carol Ann Short, community relations manager.

This isn’t about selling cookies.

Brianna’s project is called Bags of Hope, and her aim is to collect at least 1,000 suitcases, duffel bags, backpacks and tote bags for the state Children, Youth and Families Department to distribute to children rescued from abusive or neglectful homes.

Most projects take about a year to complete. Brianna, whose family now lives in Rio Rancho, is just getting rolling with hers, and she’s been at it for six months, researching, reaching out to community supporters, speaking to younger Girl Scout troops about her efforts and developing her website.

And collecting the bags. Lots of them – 225 at last count. Already, they are crammed in her bedroom, living room and garage. Suitcases are also being kept in a storage unit and in her mother’s office at the Girl Scouts of New Mexico Trails headquarters in Albuquerque, where her mother, Alisa Swinderman, now works as membership manager.

“So if anybody has storage space to donate, that would be great, too,” Brianna’s mother said, chuckling.

Brianna is a curious sort, a 10th-grader at Rio Rancho High School with thick tangles of black hair who says she is “obsessed” with EVERYTHING, especially photography, music and technology. She finds it fun to write HTML and CSS programs (and if you know what that is, congratulations, you are a geek); fun to play the euphonium, ukulele, flute, clarinet and bass guitar; fun to listen to everything from Elvis to underground hipster tunes (and if you know what that is, congratulations, you are not so geeky after all).

If she could be anything, she would be a marine biologist. Or a photographer. Or someone who photographs marine biology.

And then again.

“Child abuse is never going to end, but there are ways I can help ease their pain,” she said. “Doing work like this could end up being my career.”

Which would make her social worker mother very proud.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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