TEN years ago, Heather Baird started a charity out of her kitchen.

Its purpose is in its name – A Better Life for Foster Kids (ABLFFK). The Sale-based charity provides material assistance to children in care, and care-leavers, as well as advocating for carer support to help children navigate the out-of-home care system.

The Gippsland Times asked the founder how she would sum up the last 10 years?

“Oh wow”, Heather sighed, followed by a four-second pause.

“Sum up the last 10 years, well, to think that we started on my kitchen table with myself, my mother-in-law and my daughter… in 10 years we’ve achieved an awful lot.

“I always said, ‘if I could just help half-a-dozen kids, that would be wonderful’.”

The aim of ABLFFK (written on its website) is ‘to preserve children’s dignity, improve their feelings of self-worth and lessen social stigma’.

The significance of these feelings is something Heather knows well.

Raised in orphanages and institutions from the age of two-and-a-half until she left the system as a 17-year-old, Heather remembers never having clothes of her own.

“We’d get changed at the end of the week and all your clothes would go to laundry together and then the next week, things would be handed out.”

She said a difficult situation that stuck in her mind was going to school, where she was laughed at because of the clothes she wore.

“I used to hate being laughed at because all the kids knew we were ‘homies’ because of the clothes that we wore,” she said.

“Our clothes belonged in the 1920s. I remember wishing and praying that l could have nice things, like all the other kids.”

Filling a gap in the system

Heather said she intended to work in the child welfare system after completing a Diploma of Social Services at TAFE Gippsland in 2013.

During her placement in Sale, Heather said she had great difficulty sourcing clothes for children.

“I had it in my head that I was going to work for child protection, that’s one thing I wanted to do. But then I realised that I couldn’t with all the red tape that goes on there – I wouldn’t last two minutes.”

Upon re-evaluating her career path, though not straying from where her heart was telling her she was needed, Heather fixated on solving the problem she encountered, both as a child in the welfare system and as a worker trying to improve children’s experiences – sourcing clothing.

“I ended up going around with my own money and buying these children some clothes to wear and that’s when I decided that that’s what I’d do – I’d provide whatever it is that the child needs, and the carers.

Heather said while carers are happy to take children in, often, they don’t have everything kids need, like furniture, a bed, and clothes.

“Whatever the carer needs, I try to get it for them,” she said.

This sparked the evolution of ABLFFK’s core service – the ‘Crisis Case’.

Crises Cases are wheeled suitcases and contain about 55 items; clothing, toiletries, baby supplies, activity books, a blanket and hand-made toys, valuing the case at around $375. Heather said they’re intended to have a week’s worth of supplies to get the children and carers placement started.

“It’s a crisis case, so it’s to get them out of that crisis period of a week.”

Heather Baird prepares items for a Crisis Case. Photos: Heather Baird

“Most of the kids who, when they’re removed from home by the police or the Child Protection (Services), don’t come with anything. Nine times out of 10, their clothing that they do have on is not really suitable; dirty, (the) wrong size.”

She said the cases allow carers to concentrate on the child’s emotional needs after being removed from their home.

“A lot of them get removed late at night, so therefore, there’s no shops open…so they couldn’t go and get anything, even if they wanted to.

“We find that a lot of the carers will say to you, ‘it’s so nice to be able to pop the child in the bath and go to the case, get a pair of pyjamas out and pop the kiddies in bed quickly’.”

She said the material assistance lessens trauma.

“Remembering these children are neglected, abused. We had one little boy that never owned a pair of pyjamas and just as far as getting (a) brand new pair of pyjamas to wear, he was just amazed.”

She said it is rewarding to be involved in the placement process.

Community and volunteers at the heart

Heather emphasised that ABLFFK “belongs to the community”.

“Gippsland is always going to be our main head office and port of call, but we have cases going out all over Victoria now. We’re unique in that we are the only charity that does it in suitcases and such a comprehensive amount of clothing,” she said.

Today, the charity has grown to a team of nine volunteers who call themselves the ‘Thursday Ladies’. A few volunteers have been with the charity for as long as it’s existed.

“I have wonderful volunteers – ladies that we call the ‘Thursday Ladies’ – they keep the cases up and going and stacked and packed,” Heather said.

Bright smiles: (back left) Geneine Hall, Olivia Topham, Kate Sunners, Denise Anderson and Tammy Topham, (front left) Judy Gordyn, Heather Baird, Pat McDermott and Yvonne Baird.

Denise Anderson is one of three Thursday Ladies who has volunteered for 10 years. She said it is “incredible” how much the charity has grown in that time.

“We started off with paper bags for the Crisis Cases… and we’ve gone to little cases for (the kids) now, which is amazing. They’ve got little cases to keep their things in,” she said.

While the lifeblood of the charity is its volunteers and community support, private funding is critical because ABLFFK does not accept government assistance. Heather said it would impede her work as an advocate.

Recently, ABLFFK was announced as a recipient of $4,960 from the Gardiner Foundation Community Grants program.

“To get the private funding is very important to us because without it we couldn’t do it. We have every one of our cases has a handmade blanket and teddy bear that the community made these for us, and every single case has one in it,” Heather said.

“You know the community is so generous, that’s what makes it possible. So therefore, without the funding we couldn’t do what we’re doing.

Since starting out with donations and second-hand items, ABLFFK has now supplied 15 per cent of the 10,000 children in the welfare system with Crisis Cases.

Heather Baird said the material belongings in Crisis Cases help carers focus on what is most important – a child’s welfare.

The charity also runs an annual camp and a PJ Day called ‘Gippsland’s Biggest PJ Day’, which will be held on September 6 this year. Heather said there are 16 ABLFFK depots located around Victoria including in Sale, Morwell, Bairnsdale and Warragul, and that every Christmas, children are sent presents.

“We send out presents to all the children and to the biological children of the foster family, so each child gets three gifts to the value of around $50-60. We do that Australia wide. So last year we sent out over nearly about 6,690 gifts,” Heather said.

“Coming from a band of 10 people, I think we have achieved a fair bit.”

Giving back is in the Baird’s blood

Calling ABLFFK’s volunteers an extension of Heather’s family probably isn’t a stretch. But as well as Denise Anderson, Yvonne Baird and Tammy Topham round out the charity’s longest-serving volunteers – who are Heather’s relatives.

“Proud”, was the word Heather’s daughter, Tammy, used to describe the growth of ABLFFK as well as her mum’s work, which has inspired a third generation of charitable individuals.

Tammy is a working mother of five, and volunteers one day a week at ABLFFK. She said it’s a “crazy” juggling act but that she “wouldn’t have it any other way”.

“I’m lucky my kids love to help with the charity as well. They find that really special to be able to come along and do something for these kids.”

Tammy said she is particularly fond of Christmas time when she makes the effort to drive from her home in Koo Wee Rup to Sale, to help her mum shop prepare, make up, and wrap gifts.

Member for Eastern Victoria, Melina Bath with Leonie McCann, Heather Baird, Yvonne Baird and Andrea Elliott from A Better Life For Foster Kids.

Yvonne Baird, who is Heather’s mother-in-law, said the work volunteers at ABFFK does not go unnoticed.

“Occasionally, we do get a visit from one of the children, and you know they’re fun, we all get a hug. We hear from the carers that they appreciate the cases, some will say ‘oh we loved the rugs, or we loved the teddies’, and that just makes you feel (that) any small thing you do is helping.”

It’s not all give though, because as well as helping foster children, Yvonne said the charity has given a lot to her and other volunteers.

“It’s helped me a lot,” she said.

“I belong to CWA (Country Women’s Association), and we have a lot of older ladies who have crafty skills and it’s helping older ladies as well because they can utilise these skills and create some of the lovely articles that we put in the cases, which talking to carers, the children really appreciate.”

All the women highlighted on the remarkable growth of the charity. From a kitchen table and Bunnings sausage sizzles and cake stall to raise funds, to ladies donating their crafts and children lending a hand, A Better Life for Foster Kids keeps getting better.

The good is spreading.

“We had some children from the Grammar School come at Christmas time when we were making cases and one little boy said, ‘what happens to these kids?’, and I said, ‘well I do know for a fact that we have one young (girl) around Warragul way, and she’s off to (university) this last year’,” Yvonne said.

“That’s a happy outcome – that’s what we’re all aiming for kids to get on and create their own lives,” she said.

As Heather summed up the last ten years of ABLFFK, she looked towards to the future.

“It’s now to see what the next 10 years brings,” she said.

Many hands: Yvonne Baird, Andrew Williamson, Pat McDermott, Judy Gordyn, Olivia Topham, Julie Pritchett, Heather Baird, Desley Gray, Denise Anderson.