With Love On Wheels, the child is able to feel supported and cared for, no matter where they are.
Dr. Kathleen Kunkel didn’t plan on starting a nonprofit. Her veterinary hospital, Little House Animal Hospital in Franklin, Tennessee, filled her days with work, horses, and her husband, Scott. But when she and Scott got interested in foster care, she discovered that there was room for more in her life.
Dr. Kunkel said that she and Scott went to one of the foster parent workshops that’s given as part of the certification process in Tennessee. They watched a video about how the kids are transferred from their homes to foster care.
“The video showed a police officer picking up a kid, handing them a trash bag, and telling them to get their stuff,” she said. “From the very first moment, it’s like they were being told: ‘you’re garbage.’”
She was moved to make a difference and started Love On Wheels.
Love on Wheels is a nonprofit that provides suitcases with basic necessities for children entering foster care in Tennessee. Dr. Kunkel and Scott personally deliver the suitcases all over Tennessee. The kits are then distributed to foster children in need. Each suitcase is prepared by volunteers who personally see that each suitcase includes new, gender-appropriate clothes, socks, underwear, pajamas, toiletries, a blanket, and a small toy.
Love On Wheels has seen a significant increase in the number of children entering the foster care system as a result of the drug epidemic. According to Opioid Justice Team:
- New foster care cases involving parents who are using drugs have hit the highest point in more than three decades of record-keeping, accounting for 92,000 NEW children entering the system in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- The crisis is so severe—with a 32 percent spike in drug-related cases from 2012 to 2016—it reversed a trend that had the foster care system shrinking in size over the preceding decade.
- All told, a total of 437,000 children were in the foster care system as of Sept. 30, 2016. Child and family assistance spending related to the epidemic was about $6.1 billion in 2016.
That means more police pick-ups and more garbage bags. Normally, children are given a trash bag and 15 minutes to collect their toothbrush, toiletries and personal items. Then, the police and state authorities take the child or children to temporary foster homes. With Love On Wheels, the child is able to feel supported and cared for, no matter where they are.
“It’s ridiculous to expect a young child, 7 or 8 years old, to collect all their important things in 15 minutes,” Dr. Kunkel said. “How many of them are going to remember their toothbrush? Their homework? Clean underwear for tomorrow? It’s unrealistic, and since many foster families are not high-income, it’s also unfair to expect that they’ll have an extra supply of personal hygiene items and clothes. Love On Wheels helps fill the gaps for children and families.”
“That’s why we’re so happy to be working with local and regional non-profits like Love on Wheels, or even national organizations like Facing Addiction,” said Dr. Brent Bell, a medical expert with the Opioid Justice Team. “A medical-legal partnership is needed to be sure the needs of children experience hardships due to their parents’ or caregivers’ dependency have a voice and are cared for. Partnerships with organizations like Dr. Kunkel’s help us find families and organizations who need advice and help in this national epidemic.”
Dr. Kunkel said that seeing children open their personal suitcases was the most rewarding part of her nonprofit. Although the kits are usually handed over by social workers or other authorities, she got a hail-Mary phone call from a foster parent in need: two kids needed help, immediately. Dr. Kunkel invited them over and she got to watch the children receive their suitcases.
“Oh, it was just—tears,” she said. “They picked up each little thing in there like it was Christmas. ‘Look, a toothbrush!’ It was so meaningful to see the impact we can have. To kids, these are not small things. They’re a big deal.”
To support the group or learn more, visit: love-on-wheels.org.